The Coming Battle for Africa's Internet

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As new technology brings Africans online, everyone from Google to local developers are looking to seize the growing market

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A team of engineers lay fibre optic cables in rural Kenya. Antony Njuguna / Reuters

DAKAR, Senegal -- On a normal week, 30-year-old Salam Fall would be under-slept in West Virginia, juggling the odd hours of a graveyard shift at an IT company with the even odder hours of his moonlight gig, managing an internet start-up based five time zones to the east. But in early February, the Senegalese-American immigrant -- and his green card 9 years in the making -- returned to Senegal to make some changes at Seneweb.com, his website and, in many ways, the unofficial homepage of the nation.

If you're Senegalese or have ever traveled to the West African nation, you've likely come across this site. A buzzing, sensational aggregator of the former French colony's news, it feels and looks like the Huffington Post of Senegal -- except with far less in the way of competition. Deeply influential in Senegalese media and politics, it's where obscure reports of government waywardness go viral. On a happening day, the site fetches 200,000 unique visits and 1.3 million hits -- astounding numbers in a nation of 13 million, less than a million of whom can even get online.

That traffic has traditionally come not from inside Senegal but from all the motley places where West Africans travel for work -- such as Romania, the source of 905 unique Seneweb visits last month. For this region's disparate migrant communities, websites such as Seneweb are an invaluable tool for keeping up with the goings on at home. Accordingly, nearly every country in the neighborhood has its Seneweb: Ghanaweb is probably the most influential, followed by Côte d'Ivoire's Abidjan.net.

But in the past few years, as Fall was pulling night shifts, something fundamental changed for the man who would be Africa's Arianna Huffington.

"At one point, people in the U.S. were the main people who visited," he said. "But now, the majority of visitors are in Senegal. The internet has taken off here."

It will continue to take off, analysts say, as internet access becomes cheaper and more widespread. It's largely just a matter of how quickly it happens and how common it becomes. Less than ten percent of Africa's population has internet access, but Seacom chief executive Brian Herlihy told me he expects that number to grow by half every year "for the foreseeable future."

His company is one of several laying links in what they hope could become as much as 100,000 miles of broadband wiring criss-crossing the world's second-largest continent like the 21st century version of a transcontinental railway. The connections start with undersea cables and extend onshore towards 3G towers within reception range of the continent's growing middle class.

That burgeoning bourgeoisie is Africa's lead variable, and Herlihy ballparks its current mass at 300 million people, each earning between $2,000 and $5,000 yearly -- not always enough to keep a router in the living room lit, but certainly enough to pay off a BlackBerry bill. The service they enjoy, smoother than its American equivalent, runs off towers that are newer and more adaptable to data transfers, which is rendering Africa's telecom transition -- from a continent of voice phones to one of pocket PCs -- more scalable than expected.

"It's just happening faster and faster than anybody could have imagined," Herlihy says.

Plus, that expanded internet access isn't just a symptom of a greater prosperity -- it can also help drive that same middle class growth. The World Bank estimates that every ten percent of a country's population that winds up online powers a percentage point and a half of yearly economic growth.

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Drew Hinshaw is a reporter based in Dakar. He writes about West Africa. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg News and the Christian Science Monitor.

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