Africa is on the cusp of an Internet boom

The last decade in Africa was dominated by cell phones, but now the continent is on the cusp of an Internet revolution, some in the technology industry say.

By , Correspondent

"The last decade was a voice decade," says Brian Herlihy, the chief executive whose company planted the first high-speed cable off the east coast of Africa.

If you lived on this continent for the past decade, you know what he's talking about: the expanding crowds of teenage kids hawking phone credit in traffic jams, the rows of phone repair stalls in city centers, the overnight emergence of telecoms like MTN and Zain as the most visible conglomerates in contemporary Africa, something like the big railroads of America's 1880s.

It's been a decade of flip phones and ringtones on the world's least wired continent, but the coming decade may be more digital.

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Today, most of the continent hovers between 5 and 15 percent internet access; Herlihy expects that to grow by 50 percent every year for as far into the future as his team can see.

Total Africa-wide spending on IT technology, he projects, will triple to $150 billion, and downloads and data will drive that – not calls.

"There's been no data revolution in Africa," he says.

But the powers-that-plan are preparing for it.

Price war

For Google, for phonemakers, and service operators, Africa has become the beta continent for new nifty tech breakthroughs.

This isn't new: Nokias packed with MP3 players landed here like iPhone prototypes in the mid-2000s, when Americans were still trying to aim their camera phones.

Half a decade later, the ability to text pre-paid credit from phone to phone like a kind of backdoor currency is nearly commonplace.

"We are seeing things happen in Africa first," Jon von Tetzchner, co-founder of the browser Opera told the Agence France Presse.

That, Herlihy says, is the windfall of competition. As ambitious telecoms expand into already congested markets – most of Africa's big nations have four to six operators – prices are scraping zero.

In turn, that forces telecoms to nudge their customers towards other ways of cell phone-based spending -- through mobile banking, or mobile shopping, or more increasingly, on per-kilobyte internet rates.

"They are across the board cutting prices with the idea that they'll generate revenue out of data and applications," Herlihy said.

Considering the spaghetti noodles of high speed cables roping off the Africa coastline -- a glut of bandwidth that includes five new cables worth $2.5 billion this year alone – they aren't the only one's betting on that.

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