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The Cloud May Prove Even More Important to Africa Than the Well-Wired West

You’re probably one of the lucky people. You live within the coverage zone of a 3G or 4G cellular network, you have access to Internet at home and work over a connection measured in tens of megabits per second, and when you turn on your laptop (or your tablet, or your smartphone) you can see three, four, or twenty nearby WiFi networks. Cloud computing was invented for people like you—but it might turn out to be of even more benefit to the billions of people who don’t own a computer—those dark places on Facebook’s map of connections—and whose lives could be changed dramatically by a couple of mobile apps.

Take Africa, for instance, where an emerging information technology industry is betting its future on serving customers and businesses through mobile cloud applications. At the same time, governments and non-governmental organizations are betting that cloud-based technology can help transform their economies and societies, spurring improvements in education, public health, and the environment.

It sounds great, but making the cloud work in Africa remains a non-trivial problem. Just ask anyone who has run a data center there—they will tell you how expensive and frustrating it can be to work on a continent where it’s often cheaper to connect back to an overseas data center from a co-location facility than to connect with a customer a few miles away; where most people don’t even have landline, let alone wired Internet; and where the electrical grid could suddenly stop working for hours or even days at a time.

Those very challenges make Africa an increasingly attractive proving ground for cloud computing, though, especially for mobile applications. Out of the one billion people in Africa, only an estimated 140 million use the Internet, but over 600 million use mobile phones, according to data from the World Bank.

At the East Africa Outsourcing Summit in Nairobi on June 6, Kenya ICT Board CEO Paul Kukubo said, “The world is beginning to pay attention to the idea that even in Africa, if you can solve African problems, you can create an IT product that is attractive to the rest of the world.” As the tagline of Shimba Technologies, a Nairobi-based mobile application developer, says, “If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.”

While the problems Africa faces in terms of making cloud computing work are uniquely African, the solutions developed there could help to provide more universal access to Internet and cloud services elsewhere—including under-served areas here in the US.

Broadband availability in Africa has been a major issue for both business and personal access to the cloud. Fortunately, African bandwidth has improved dramatically over the past few years—especially for businesses looking to connect to cloud resources elsewhere in the world.

Before 2001, aside from South Africa, most of the continent’s Internet connectivity was limited to satellite-based uplinks (some sponsored by a USAID project in the late 1990s) and analog telecommunications connections. The South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable went live in 2001 and gave much of western Africa its first reliable, terrestrial, and digital connection with a bandwidth of 340Gbps. But the cost of connecting over the cable was astronomical—an E1 connection (much like a T1 line in the US) in South Africa used to cost $300,000 a month.

In the mid-2000s, the situation remained bad across much of the continent. One paper on African broadband (PDF) provides a typical example of how pricing discouraged actual use of the Internet, all the way down to the very local level. “Mbarara University [of Uganda] pays US$2,190 per month for a bandwidth of 384kbps,” wrote G.M. Muwanga, who works at the school. “This translates into very slow and frustrating Internet connectivity, and to prevent slowing the system even further, many computers on university campus are not connected to the Internet.”

Even in places like South Africa, the bandwidth situation was tough. Barry Gill, an enterprise consultant for e-mail software-as-a-service provider Mimecast, helped launch the company’s first offerings in South Africa in 2005. “We had one server hosted in a rack moving less than a gigabyte of data a month,” he said in a phone interview with Ars, “but the cost of that per month was more than my salary. That was a massive problem for us.”

Since 2009, seven more undersea cable networks have gone live to the continent. South Africa’s fifth cable, the West Africa Cable System (WACS), was activated in May, and its 11 percent share of cable capacity brings South Africa’s national bandwidth up to about 8 terabits per second. That increase in capacity has lowered the cost for Mimecast to connect to the company’s overseas data centers. But the cost of connecting within South Africa is still high. “Buying bandwidth to get from Point A to Point B within South Africa costs more than getting to the US or Asia,” Gill said.

Gill had come to Mimecast from the Botswana Telecommunications Corporation’s Internet service provider subsidiary, so he “knew everyone in the ISP game.” That turned out to be a good thing. By the end of 2005, Mimecast’s operation had grown from one Intel-based server to eight AMD-based Sun Microsystems servers configured in two separate “data centers” on separate cooling and power (but just across the hall from each other in the same building). But Gill had a hard time finding someone to provide him with crossover connectivity between them.

“I was approaching Verizon and others, saying ‘I need cross connections,’” he said, but he had a hard time finding someone who could help. Before they finally negotiated a solution with a provider, Gill said, “We were prepared to spend close to one million rand (around US$120,000) for a microwave link, but we needed someone licensed to do it.”

Alex Laverty is a graduate student cross-enrolled in the University of California Los Angeles’ African Studies and the University of Southern California Annenberg School’s public diplomacy programs; he formerly worked in South Africa for Trans Africa Forum and Human Rights Watch, and now he tracks information technology issues in Africa for The African File website.

In a conversation with Ars, Laverty said that bandwidth in countries like South Africa is actually available—“if you can afford to pay for it.” But it’s the price of broadband that still challenges anyone looking to use cloud-based services.

“What’s holding it up is the lack of competition,” he said. “The telecoms used to be state-run organizations, and they still have dominance in reach. When I was there in 2010, the second provider of broadband had just launched, and they were offering competitive pricing, but in terms of availability it just wasn’t there.”

Nairobi has another sort of bandwidth problem. Laverty said that as demand for bandwidth in Nairobi has increased with the growth of the IT business there, so has the worst kind of competition. “Broadband providers won’t share fiber optic cables,” Laverty said, “so they’re all running their own cables to the wealthy areas of Nairobi. The competition is so fierce that people are digging up competitors’ cables and cutting them.”

Aside from the issues with wired broadband, would-be cloud service providers in Africa face another serious problem: the power grid. “South Africa is very first-world in many things,” Gill said, but electrical service is not one of them. “People are cursing the incumbent power provider all the time.”

Gill said that Mimecast’s South African data center providers “say they have hundreds of diesel generators on hand, and they fire these things up all the time. They have contracts with fuel providers to get resupplied, because they’ll chew through two or three thousand gallons of diesel over a weekend, with no guarantee that the power will be coming back on.” There are still cases where the power will go away for three to four days with no warning or explanation.

Along with the unreliability, there’s a lack of electrical capacity. “If you’re in a power-hungry environment, there’s not enough power being generated to keep you going,” Gill said. “The power stations are in a state of disrepair and getting decommissioned, and there are nuclear reactors that were never commissioned. You end up chasing around whatever providers there are” to try to keep operations going.

For those reasons, Mimecast isn’t interested in building its own data center in South Africa anytime soon. While the company has just built out a new set of data centers within another provider’s facility, Gill said, “The cost of deploying generators is so significant, we’d rather have a third party bear that cost.”

In many ways, Africa’s lack of wired infrastructure has been an advantage for cloud adoption. Broad adoption of mobile application services in Africa is already the norm, and adoption of some types of mobile applications already dwarfs their usage in the US. For example, Safaricom’s M-PESA mobile payment system, which allows customers to transfer money to each other via mobile phones, has largely replaced cash transactions in Kenya. Safaricom had by the beginning of last year signed up eight million customers for M-PESA, according to a report from KPMG International—that’s over 40 percent of Kenya’s adult population. Because of the wide-scale use of M-PESA, the majority of banks in Kenya have also signed on with the service.

To read the entire story by Sean Gallagher, go to ArsTechnica

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