Many studies have identified fast, cheap and easily available Internet access as an important contributor to a nation’s economic development. The availability, quality and capacity of internet links in Sierra Leone and many African countries are poor when compared to the rest of the world.
The Internet penetration (i.e. the percentage of the population that are internet users) in Sierra Leone is 1.3% as of December 2012; this is much lower than the 15.6% average Internet penetration of Africa, and the 34.3% average of the world. *
The low Sierra Leone penetration rate can be attributed in part to missed opportunities in not being able to take advantage of submarine cables such as SAT-3 (implemented in 2001 during the civil war). The current ACE fiber cable that is almost operational should raise the rate.
The good news is that throughout Africa the quality, availability and cost of internet services have been improving over the past decade. Whereas no African country south of the Sahara had more than 10% penetration in 2000 many now do. The map below shows the countries that exceed the 10% benchmark in blue. Clicking on a country will show its penetration rate as of December 2012.
Perhaps the biggest booster to recent Internet improvements in Africa has been a consequence of the communication needs of the 2011 World Cup in South Africa. Meeting the communication needs required laying down a lot of high capacity submarine fiber cabling. Because the east and west African coasts are between Europe and South Africa, it made a lot of economic sense to tap off these cables and feed the African continent in-between. There was a massive increase in submarine fiber capacity made available to the African coasts over the 2009 to 2011 period. The following map shows the currently active and proposed submarine cables serving Africa. Prior to 2009, the only active cable was the relatively low capacity (by today’s standard) SAT-3.
African governments need to develop policies that position citizens and businesses to take maximum advantage of this new Internet infrastructure. One area government incentives could play a role is in improving rural access; traditionally rural areas are not the most viable profit centers for internet or mobile service providers and these areas tend not to be serviced as a result.
*Penetration rates used in this article are based on data from http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm.