Last year, the US-based World Internet Stats released figures of Internet users which left many feeling wow!
For the first time, access to Internet in Africa had jumped to 7 percent of the global total.
The index showed that 716 400 of about 15 million people in the country were among the increasing populations ‘netzens’—with 203 840 of them on Facebook and other social media sites. Yet the country’s tally only constitutes 0.4 percent of the worldwide figures, hinting at what policy makers must surmount to ensure the country joins the top 20 Internet flashpoints on the continent where 167 335 676 reportedly used the Internet in various ways.
The country traces its online clicks to the early 1990s when Chancellor College adopted Fido Net, an electronic mail network. Malawi Net, the first Internet service provider (ISP) was formed in 1997, two years before government and UNDP co-founded Sustainable Development Network Programme (SDNP). Ever since, the country has witnessed the birth of several service providers, including Africa-Online, Globe Max, Airtel, TNM, Sky Band, Broadmax and the oldest fixed phone operator—Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MTL).
MTL has created an opportunity for other ISPs and retailers to subscribe to its bandwidth. But despite these inspiring strides, Internet connectivity is marred by low speed and skyrocketing costs which discourage interested users.
Local information and communications technology (ICT) experts say only five percent of the country’s population has access to the Internet. This is even lower than that of neighbouring Zambia and Zimbabwe where access hovers between 12 to 15 percent.
Why is it like this?
In random interviews, Blantyre residents and Internet bureau operators blamed the slowness and rising costs of using Internet as a burden to Internet access. Spot-checks in Blantyre and Lilongwe show that one needs about K15 000 and more a month to access a moderately faster Internet for downloads and uploads.
Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority reports that about 90 percent of the country has access to mobile phone network, making more and more people to access Internet on their handsets nationwide.
However, the breakthrough is threatened by interruptions of network and increasingly high tariffs announced to cushion the providers from the effects of the floatation and devaluation of the kwacha.
“Internet is very expensive and unreliable. I spend K20 000 (about $50) a month, but Internet is usually down even in the presence of the so-called fibre optic cable that promised us migration to faster Internet service three years ago,” says ICT Networks Limited resident engineer Anthony Mhango.
Any way out?
Concurringly, experts say faster and cheaper Internet can only come with full migration to the fibre optic cable. In 2010, MTL invested about K7 billion (about $17.5m) in laying a cable connecting the country to the undersea network that reaches out to the rest of the world.
Then MTL Chief Executive Officer Charles Chuka (now governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi) said at the launch of the initiative that the cable would improve Internet speed and prices.
But the wait continues.
“We have not fully realised fruits of the optic cable. While there is a slight improvement in Internet speed, MTL is continuously increasing the tariffs while at the same time reducing bandwidth available to customers.
“For instance, Airtel Malawi is claiming that they have deployed 3.75G Internet with alleged download speeds of 21 megabytes [MB] per second, but what is available to the users on average is only 256Kb/s,” says former ICT Association of Malawi president Boster Sibande.
Bumas International partner and ICT expert, Derek Lakudzala, does not see the highly touted cable reducing the delays and cost dropping any time soon. He reckons the current capacity remains lower than the country requires.
Lakudzala said: “Presently, MTL, the supplier of the fibre optic cable, also engages in end-user business selling up to the retail user. This may be justifiable, but there is need for a separation of powers between backbone connectivity supplier on one hand and end-user connectivity services on the other. As things stand now, the supplier controls the business to the customer contact point and along the way competes with supplier who depend on it. Ideally, Internet access should be much cheaper than it presently is.”
Meanwhile, government has intensified efforts to connect the country to the fibre optic cable too. According to the Minister of Information Moses Kunkuyu, this will give Malawians the ease to access speedy Internet via the electricity grid.
Mhango and other netzens are following progress of the government’s initiative with keen interest, hoping it will truly make connectivity cheaper, faster and more reliable—for Internet is a gateway to the virtual world of opportunities.