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"Digital divide" not so easy to close, Kenyans find

"Digital divide" not so easy to close, Kenyans find

In Kenya, the "digital divide" between rich and poor countries could be measured not long ago by the amount of time it took for an email to be sent from one neighbour to another -- via Europe.

Like many other developing countries, Kenya lacked fibre-optic backbone, local exchanges and other infrastructure that Web surfers in Europe and North America take for granted.

A state-owned telecommunications provider kept costs high and competitors out. The Internet was largely a foreign affair.

That's now changed thanks to a regulatory overhaul that has encouraged competition and infrastructure growth. Local email stays local and some 70 Internet providers vie for customers.

"Internet use is going to increase at an amazing rate," said James Rege, permanent secretary of Kenya's Ministry of Information and Communication, on the sidelines of a U.N. technology summit.

Diplomats and technology providers pledged to reduce the technology gap between rich and poor countries during the World Summit on the Information Society, which wraps up on Friday.

In speeches that were often long on rhetoric and short on detail, participants urged governments and businesses to extend the Internet's reach to disadvantaged areas.

But even in a country such as Kenya, where the government has slashed red tape and Internet ventures spring up like mushrooms, progress can be agonisingly slow.

Africans account for 3 percent of the world's Internet users, up from 1 percent in 2001, according to U.N. figures.

While two-thirds of adults in the United States use the Internet, only 3 percent of Kenya's 34 million residents are online, according to Rege.

POWER OUTAGES, $100 SURCHARGES

Traffic still must travel over slow and expensive satellite connections, rendering real-time applications such as Internet telephony almost useless.

Frequent power outages and service glitches from the incumbent Telkom Kenya knock users offline on a regular basis.

Local-phone charges from Telkom Kenya can slap an extra $100 (58 pounds) on monthly access fees, which typically run to $12 to $20, said Michuki Mwangi, an engineer who oversees the country's ".ke" Internet domain. Broadband service at speeds not much faster than dialup costs more than $100 per month.

Many Kenyan businesses, such as the Daily Nation newspaper, host their websites abroad -- a strategy that keeps their costs low but costs for visitors high, Mwangi said.

"It's much more expensive for me to access that paper online than it is for me to go to the stands and buy it," he said.

Access costs should decrease when an undersea fibre cable linking Kenya to the rest of the world is completed in 2007.

But that effort has been complicated by foot-dragging from Telkom Kenya and state monopolies in nearby countries that might suffer from competition, said David Owino, general manager of infrastructure provider Kenya Data Networks.

Kenya Data Networks has also had problems getting wireless licences and winning rights of way for its national fibre-optic backbone, Owino said.

"You get the feeling people are out to protect their territory," he said. "There's still a lot of work to be done, but there's been a lot of positive change in the past three and half years."


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