The Impact of Electrical Power Infrastructure on Internet access -Regional Perspectives: Southern Africa

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By Benson Ncube

In the region, pertinent Internet Governance issues include access, diversity, cybercrime, cross border Internet and mobile Internet.  The writer’s focus will be the impact of electrical power on the Internet access.

Lack of telecommunications infrastructure is obviously a key factor that affects the development of the Internet. The regional country telecommunications network operators are state-owned and the rate of development is slow due to government bureaucracy, budget constraints and uneconomical priorities. Similarly the power infrastructures in the region are predominantly owned by state companies. The same factors that affect growth of telecommunications infrastructure also affect the power infrastructure developments. In many countries the power utilities do not cover many rural areas. This is the case with Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi. The case is slightly different in South Africa and Botswana. The Botswana Power Corporation is carrying out some extensive rural electrification programmes that have seen most rural areas covered with power.  Zimbabwe, through the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority is engaged in similar programmes.  However, the economic challenges that are currently prevailing have negatively affected the roll out of power to the rural communities.

The areas that are not covered by power utilities experience serious challenges of Internet access since the Internet infrastructure equipment is powered by electricity. Therefore the majority of the population (70%) which resides in rural area does not have Internet access and this remains a dream for the people. Although the telecommunications regulators strive to enforce the Universal Access Services, the power problem stalls the process. One of the strategies of providing Internet access in the region is via Internet cafes located in schools or post offices, this only works in those privileged areas with reliable power. Although the mobile Internet has improved the rate of Internet penetration in the region, the concentration is within the cities. The mobile Internet signal may be available in the remote areas but the end-user access devices to access the network need to be powered and recharged with electricity. The other limiting factor is that the mobile Internet bandwidth is restricted and very expensive. In Zimbabwe Econet Wireless provides capped mobile Internet at 20.00 USD per month. This is relatively expensive and the rural residents cannot afford this kind of service.

It is a known fact that Southern Africa is endowed with limited power supplies. Most countries including Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe import the bulk of their power supplies from Eskom South Africa, Mozambique and Democratic Republic of Congo. With the rural to urban migration of people, the countries power supplies are experiencing serious demand upsurges that were not properly forecasted. This has resulted in adverse load shedding programmes that range from one hour to a day outages. In Zimbabwe the load shedding is the order of the day. These developments are seriously affecting the Internet access of many users. Those with businesses that depend on the Internet are negatively affected by these developments. Whilst developed countries consider Internet for Development as an issue, this might be viewed differently in developing countries.  We simply cannot focus on this issue before the access issue is resolved.  We need basic Internet Access and an affordable rate.

However, the region is putting some effort in trying to address the power outages. Governments are engaging in refurbishing the old thermal power stations and expanding others as well.  Botswana is on the verge of commissioning its Morupule B Expansion project that will avail addition 600 Megawatts of power. Zimbabwe and Zambia signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on the construction of hydro-power station at Batoka Gorge to help the region to cover critical power shortages. This is a positive development that will avail power capacity of 1,650 Megawatts. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the capacity is still below the demand. Furthermore, government projects take time to complete and are marred with complex challenges, which at times result in project abandonment.

Therefore the Southern Africa region has its own unique and peculiar Internet Governance issues which may not be trivial when discussed at global Internet Governance Forums. As long as these issues are not addressed, the region will remain lagging behind. It is recommended that the IGF stakeholders such as the Commonwealth re-examine this matter seriously and try to engage and assist the governments. Therefore lack of power should be ranked high in the Internet governance issues priority list.

 

Benson has a degree in Electrical Engineering (1992) and an MBA (2003) from the University of Zimbabwe. He has also been trained in Advanced Planning of Telecommunications projects in Germany under the sponsorship of Carl Duisburg Gesellschaft. Currently he is working for an ICT service provider in Botswana and tutoring IGCBP Advanced Security.

Benson was instrumental in the discussions that lead to the establishment of the Southern African Internet Governance Forum. He currently sits on the Ad Hoc Working Group that was mandated to spearhead the establishment of the regional forum. In his early years of his profession, he was one of the two engineers that established the modern Zimbabwe Internet Backbone that immediately gave Internet access to the Zimbabweans. He was the first Technical Point of Contact for the Country Code Top-Level-Domain for Zimbabwe (ccTLD .zw). Since then, he has developed a strong affinity for Internet services and would like to see everyone having universal access for Internet services. Due to his diligence and contribution in the ICT space he was appointed to the Research Council of Zimbabwe from 2006 until 2008. He served as a vice chairperson for the Informatics Standing Committee within the Council.

Benson Ncube is a Diplo Foundation Fellow and attended IGF 2010 and the Southern African IGF in 2011. He facilitated the Diplo Foundation – BITS Internet Governance workshop in October 2010 in Gaborone, Botswana.

 

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One Comment to “The Impact of Electrical Power Infrastructure on Internet access -Regional Perspectives: Southern Africa”

  1. Bruce Baikie says:

    The Internet has provided an unlimited potential with
    access to ebooks, multimedia content, news, new ideas, and
    information access in general. Yet, due to poor broadband
    infrastructure and available grid power to support the Internet
    and ICT growth, the developing regions have actually been left
    even further behind. The basic requirements in any developing
    region (beyond clean water and food) are a reliable electric
    power grid, network infrastructure, education, jobs, and a stable
    government and banking system. Nothing works without the
    electric and network infrastructure in place. The sad fact is diesel
    generators are used to power everything in place of a stable
    power grid. The other sad fact is most of these countries have
    tremendous amount of wind or solar energy that can be used in
    place of imported fossil fuels. The developing regions in most
    cases are connected to the Internet; the question is how best to
    interconnect inside the regions and countries and move the data
    closer to the end user? We need a developing world approach,
    not our western model of bigger is better, ie over sized, energy
    hungry Data centers. Many papers have been written on how
    Cloud Computing will help the developing world by just lower
    ICT costs, yet this is a flawed theory. As the data, systems,
    telecommunication bandwidth, and people required still remain
    in the western world and its control. Moving processing and data
    closer to the user in the developing region plays an import role on
    three fronts; 1. Keeps needed jobs and systems ICT people in
    region, 2. Sidesteps high telecommunication bandwidth costs and
    network latency issues in and out of the region and 3. Quality of
    service: in region computing can remove a major points of
    network failure and potential bandwidth bottlenecks. Energyefficient computing cannot be achieved without the integration
    between computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical
    engineering, and environmental science. Designing data centers
    for the developing regions require a vertically integrated efforts
    to drive key energy-efficient technologies in computing (cloud
    computing), electronics (low power CPUs and systems), and
    building systems (spot rack cooling, higher ambient
    temperatures, and natural convention cooling). Collectively, these
    technologies address very significant near-term and long-term
    energy challenges and environmental issues. What is that
    approach for developing region ICT, in region Green Cloud
    Computing, which is cloud computing using low power CPUs
    servers, and renewal energy and most important, which is closer
    to the end user. This paper presents an approach for a low energy
    use data centers using cloud computing designed for developing
    regions, powered with renewable energy.

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