The Shrinking Digital Divide: More than just a market for cell phones

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Usually, when Africa, telecommunications and information technology are discussed, the phrase “digital divide” is a must-mention. The phrase is the high-tech equivalent of pictures of children with distended stomachs, watery eyes, spindly limbs and other manifestations of malnutrition. Just so we’re clear about how much that divide has shrunk and that the continent is more than a giant suck-up for cell phones, here’s a look at what’s happening in a few countries.

Digital Homes South Africa expects to see a range of entertainment PCs this year. Intel’s South Africa unit just demonstrated its own digital home technology—an enhanced PC that serves as a radio, TV, DVD and MP3 music player with built-in amplifiers. It also allows users to activate or modify the settings of their home security system from anywhere in the world. A slot in the side takes memory cards directly from a digital camera, enabling users to view pictures on screen and send them to a printer. It can even keep coffee warm with a hotplate that plugs into a USB port.

Internet Shopping Malls

Nigeria just got its first Internet shopping mall. The site is accessible at http://www.shopforless.com. The operator of the site says the move was an “imperative,” given the nation’s more than two million Internet users, 1,000 Internet hosts and one million-plus PCs currently in use. Users anywhere in the country can choose goods, pay online without the use of credit cards and have their purchases delivered to their doorstep. Courier companies already operating in the country, DHL and UPS, must be salivating.

Electronic Voting

Under a program funded by the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs, members of Uganda’s parliament soon will be voting electronically. Software Technologies Uganda Ltd., which is conducting the user requirement studies and systems analysis for the parliament, says the system will require each MP to have a designated chair, so that their vote is recorded against the chair.

Broadband Services

Internet Access Cyberspace Network Ltd., one of Nigeria’s largest network service providers, launched broadband fixed wireless access (FWA) services for large institutions. FWA creates a wireless network that operates in a tight radio frequency spectrum in the microwave range. To transmit data or voice traffic, users install an inexpensive antenna and access device at their premises, which connects their network to a radio system that, in turn, connects to the network service provider operating the wireless network. Traffic can then be routed to any end point. Cisco Systems provided the network infrastructure and South Africa’s Q-Kon provided the FWA devices and network design. Business Connexion (formerly Comparex Africa) is overall systems integrator and project manager. Cyberspace can now offer several kinds of broadband services, including reliable high-speed Internet access, secure virtual private network (VPN), backhaul services for VSAT providers and wide-area corporate data networks.

Solar-accessed Landlines

Uganda Telecom added a solar-powered accessory to the TelesaverPlus land- line it introduced in June. The new solar charger—a solar panel that comes with a battery—is especially useful for rural populations without access to electricity.

Call Centers

Bet you didn’t know Africa had these. True, the number of jobs outsourced to Africa is small compared to the hundreds of thousands migrating to India, China, Malaysia and the Philippines. But companies are looking to Africa as outsourcing costs rise elsewhere. In Accra, Ghana’s capital, for example, Affiliated Computer Services Inc., an information resources management and business process outsourcing firm based in Dallas, Texas, is one of the largest private employers, with more than 1,700 employees processing American health insurance claims around the clock. Senegal is luring outsourcing from the Francophone world with its political stability, low wages, fiber optic cable running from France and a stock of young, educated employees who can turn on a Parisian accent at a click. At the Premium Contact Center International call center in Dakar, the minimum educational requirement for operators is a college degree. The center has some 600 operators, ages 20 to 25, who work up to 40 hours a week and expects that number to reach 700 this year. North Africa, primarily Morocco and Tunisia, are also popular locations for French companies. South Africa is increasingly attractive to European companies because of its broad language capabilities, which allow call centers to serve French, German, Dutch, Italian and Portuguese customers. Market analyst Datamonitor predicts that the number of offshore-outsourced agent positions in the Middle East and Africa will grow at an annual growth rate of 22 percent between 2002 and 2007.