Monday, July 24, 2006

Ghana: Rapid growth in Internet use despite cost constraints

Ghana was amongst the first countries in Africa to get connected. Although it suffers from all the usual constraints on growth - especially the high costs of connectivity - it is estimated that around half a million people have access to the web in some form. Kwami Ahiabenu describes the development of Ghana's internet culture.

The genesis of the Internet in Ghana started in the early nineties(1989/90) with the initiation of a pilot project by the Pan African Development Information system (PADIS) and the International Development Centre (IDRC) Fidonet network to connect the Ghana National Scientific and Technological Information Network (GHASTINET), the Association of African Universities(AAU) and the Technology Transfer Centre (TCC), to GreenNet in London by dial-up.
The service was limited to E-mail which was sent 3 times a week at 2400bps. Later, AAU started using Unix to Unix Copy Protocol (UUCP) while the Health institutions migrated to HealthNet. The HealthNet system was based on Satellite technology at this time. Full commercial Internet access went live in January 1995 with pioneering work done by Network Computer Systems ­NCS. Majority of organisations, both private and public were connected to the Internet in 1997 when Internet usage explored.

Internet usage in Ghana has taken off in an unprecedented way with individuals and companies rushing to get access to the Internet. The increase in the number of cyber cafes has been one important contributory factor. Though cyber cafes are found in every part of the country majority of them are located in the country's capital Accra.

With the number of Internet access centers (cafes, post offices, communication centers, telecenters, etc.) mushrooming all over the city, it is estimated that the city alone has over 100 Internet access centers with occupancy rates reaching over 90% in most centers. Growth has also been particularly strong in the private sector for whom the internet has become a very important tool for business.

According to the National Communication Authority ­ NCA over 39 ISPs have been licensed but there are currently 8 Internet providers operational in Ghana: Network Computer Systems, premier followed by Africa Online and Internet Ghana, Africa Express (Christian internet service providers) and IDN. Three additional ISPs went live early this year namely WWWPLUS, ESS LTD and as the latest ISP.
Each ISP connects to the International Internet links independently and there is no local Internet Exchange or peering, meaning local internet exchange traffic has to reach the international link before it drops to Ghana.

ISPs mainly found in AccraAll the ISPs operate from Accra, the national capital hence majority of users outside Accra, have to make a trunk call to get access to the Internet. Though some ISPs provide Point of Presence - POP in other parts of the country, the number is woefully inadequate. There is an urgent need to provide more POP to ensure that the whole country has access to the Internet without making an expensive trunk call to Accra.
Currently it is estimated that over 15,000 users have direct connection to the internet, whilst it is estimated that over 500,000 users have access through shared Internet connections- homes, offices, through friends and cyber cafes.

The government of Ghana does not have a specific policy on the use of Internet. However it has not been hostile to its implementation in the country, though in recent past the National Communication Authority- NCA shut down one ISP ­ InterCom Data Network ­ IDN and some telecomms operators for operating Voice Over IP (VOIP) technology. IDN is now back in business and because of its flagship as the best ISP in Ghana it was able to get over 90% of its clients back on its network.

Though commercial voice over the Internet is not permitted in Ghana, a lot of Internet users tend to use this technology especially to call relatives and friends outside Ghana.
Most service providers offer full Internet services, including value added services. Interestingly some ISPs do not offer a dial up e-mail account only option. Thus a user is left with no option than to subscribe to full Internet services. Furthermore, most ISPs also tend to provide web designing and traditional web hosting services. There is a sharp increase in the number of companies providing specialised web content development and hosting in response to the rising demand for such services.

E-mail remains the "killer internet application" in Ghana: the ordinary person likes the fact that he or she can be reached by a click of the button through their inbox. Web browsing follows closely as the most popular applications with most users visiting websites with content produced outside Ghana. This is largely due to the fact they do not have a lot of websites to visit with content local to Ghana. Unfortunately this situation makes the Internet very foreign and irrelevant to some people.

Company employees lack access to e-mail Though majority of private companies rely on the internet a lot, there are strong indications that a significant number of their employees do not have access to the internet and other services. It is common to see pile of e-mail printed out for people to read because they do not have access to the Internet to read such mails.
Over 53.1% of the companies do not provide full Internet access to their employees. Usually access is provided to IT department personnel and top level management and with the rest of the employees having shared access or no access at all.

Furthermore, most companies tend to have only one e-mail and internet access point thus you find employees waiting for their turn to use this account primarily to check their free web based accounts. But this trend is rapidly changing with most companies making investment in systems which provide each employee with a personal Internet account.
For the majority of subscribers in Ghana having a fast and reliable service, is a dream which is yet to come true. A dial-up subscriber must be prepared to dial for an average of 40 times before establishing a connection. The average telephone line to subscriber ratio in Ghana from ISP is 20/1.Most ISP receive data on average at a speed of 2Mbits/sec and run it to subscribers at an average speed of less than 1Kbit/Sec.

To add more agony for subscribers, support for users is nothing to write home about, with some ISPs having no support at all for their clients. The lack of good quality skills especially qualified engineers is adversely affecting the operations of ISPs with attendant negative effect on quality of services. Furthermore, the few qualified engineers available are leaving the country each passing day to Europe and USA.

How do people get connected?
Dial Up Access is the most popular backbone options for Internet connectivity, using basically the services of Ghana Telecom. The second national operator, Westel does not support data in a efficient way.
Secondly, most corporate users tend to use leased line from Ghana Telecomm, while some corporate users use wireless connection such as radio links, satellite and broadband access. It is not uncommon these days to see some users browsing the Internet using their GSM mobile phones as a communication backbone.
User feesA typical web user currently has to pay a subscription fee of an average of US$ 35 unlimited access of web browsing, one e-mail account etc plus telephone usage rate of 200 cedis (0.03 cents) per minute.
The cost of having dedicated access to the internet is prohibitive and this cost goes even higher when you add the cost of a PC, the most popular mode of connection now costs an average of US$ 1,000. The majority of prospective users of dedicated access are faced with the problem of cost.
It is important to find a creative way of providing a uniform tariff regime which will include the cost of telephone charges plus the urgent need to reduce subscription charges.
Cyber cafesCyber cafes are the most important and popular options for Internet connectivity for majority of internet users, since individuals and some organisations can not afford dedicated access and have to use shared access.
Two main types of cafes, Africaonline e-touch where only e-mail access is provided and other cyber cafes providing almost all internet services plus other services such as printing, scanning services. Average charge for Internet usage is US$ 0.02 per minute of usage.
Currrently there are over 150 cyber cafes in Ghana with 90% of these cafes found in the national capital Accra, generally the trend is to find majority of cities and big towns well endowed with IT resources meaning a "digital divide" is found in Ghana with the cities and big towns on the have's side of this "divide" and the rural areas finding themselves on the "have nots" side of the coin.
All universities and polytechnics in Ghana are hooked to the Internet, with some access for all teaching staff. Though graduate students have access to the internet, majority of undergraduates level have to use privately run cyber cafes dotted all over their campuses.
At lower levels,only few secondary schools have access to the Internet and majority of Junior Secondary and Primary Schools do not have access to the Internet for both teachers and students. IT as a whole and Internet as a subject is not generally taught as a compulsory subject in schools at all levels in Ghana, though plans are underway to introduce IT courses in Schools.
Majority of Internet courses such as Internet appreciation, web site development and related courses are taught in private IT schools found in almost every part of the country. There is a rapid increase in the number of homes in Ghana getting connected to the Internet and this is contributing to the development of an Internet culture in Ghana.

By Kwami Ahiabenu, for Balancing Act. 2001

No comments: