Rory Cellan-Jones

Day Three: What price the web?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 16 Sep 09, 08:21 GMT

What kind of mood is Kenya in as the fast internet revolution arrives? Excited, yes, enthusiastic certainly - but also impatient and just a little bit cynical. This is a country with a vigorous and argumentative democracy - but whose people have earned the right to be cynical about the promises made by politicians and corporations. They were promised fast broadband at an affordable price - but a few weeks after the fibre cable went live, they're questioning what it will deliver.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Not much cynicism, though, at St Charles Lwanga Secondary, a school crying out for connectivity. We arrived to a fantastic greeting from the choir, dancing and singing about President Obama, revered here as the son of a Kenyan father. We were then shown to the one classroom out of 12 which did have computers. The 20 reconditioned PCs had been donated by British companies through the Computer Aid charity, and pupils were hard at work on a Word document.

But what they didn't have was an internet connection. The head teacher Peter Watoro explained that while a couple of computers in his office were connected, the bill to put every class online could be as much as £350 a month - way beyond the means of the school. Now he hopes and believes the cable will bring that cost down.
Public beach, Mombasa
Our next stop was the Blue Fin Cyber Cafe in downtown Mombasa where, for a princely 20p, I got half an hour's surfing. Mind you it was at a snail's pace - a quick test revealed that I was downloading at an average speed of 0.1Mbps.

The owner told us that he was not yet connected to the fibre link - but when he was, his customers would get faster web access for no extra cost. There again, he was only promising a doubling of speeds, so don't expect to watch YouTube at the Blue Fin. Like just about everyone else he laid the blame at the door of the internet service providers - "true competition hasn't hit the market," he explained.
Screengrab of speedtest in internet cafe
So then we talked to an ISP. Jacque Mbandi of Access Kenya wanted to give us the good news about the faster service her firm could now offer business and residential users. But when she read out the prices we had to make her repeat them a couple of times.Previously, she explained, they'd sold businesses a 1mbps connection for around £2,500 a month. Now post-fibre, as she put it, that had come down to around £750.

Better news for home customers - they used to pay £30 a month for a 256Kbps connection, now they'd get 512kbps for the same £30. Now that's probably around what you would have paid in the UK for broadband a few years back, but in this country it puts in the luxury bracket. Jacquee Mbandi admitted that most Kenyans wouldn't be able to afford broadband for a while - but she denied that the ISPs were profiteering, insisting they had to recoup the extra costs of building their own fibre networks.

The most cynical, but also the most exuberant person I've met in Kenya has been Tonee N'Dungu. He came on the overnight bus from Nairobi to meet us, so keen was he to put over the viewpoint of a new tech-savvy generation.
Tonee N'Dungu
Tonee, who seems to have at least three jobs in the media and social networking field, met me on the public beach in Mombasa. He immediately produced two laptops, a smartphone and a mini video camera, all tools of his trade.

"We're all on Twitter, Facebook - anything that allows us to express ourselves," was how he described young Kenyans, and he said the arrival of good internet connections could be the biggest event since independence for his generation.

Then he explained why he was cynical; "I've seen how things work in my country - there are always strings attached, nothing comes for free." It was the last mile to the home that mattered - and the danger was that millions of people outside the big cities would miss out.

Tonee may be dubious about the promise of a wired Kenya - but he already seems to be halfway there. As he travelled back to Nairobi, he was still in a frenzy of communication, sending messages on Twitter on his phone from the bus. The road to this country's digital future may be littered with potholes, but the energy of people like Tonee should help Kenya get there.


  • Comment number 1.

    Anyone else just smile from reading about Tonees enthusiasm?

  • Comment number 2.

    This is an interesting article and a couple of things strike me.

    First of all, if the importance of the internet for Africa is in communication, then the issue of speed is less important. Streaming video content from YouTube is hardly the most vital component when it comes to necessity. The most important priority is probably email, and on a political front being able to use Facebook Lite and other blogging systems. These can be used at dial up speeds - it is the always on component of broadband rather than the speed which is therefore important.

    "The 20 reconditioned PCs had been donated by British companies through the Computer Aid charity, and pupils were hard at work on a Word document."

    Okay, you said a "Word" document - how much are they paying for the licensing of MS Word in the school?

    Although I can understand why many people are reluctant to move to Linux as an OS (despite being now far more easy to use, it is still a minefield if you have no technical knowledge), open source applications such as OpenOffice are no more complicated to use than their proprietary alternatives, and should be the automatic choice for a cash strapped continent.

    Mind you, goodness knows why more schools in the UK are not using more Open Source solutions!

  • Comment number 3.

    Mods my comment has been being moderated for over 2 hours now, there was nothing in there even slightly breaking any rules.

  • Comment number 4.

    "They were promised fast broadband at an affordable price - but a few weeks after the fibre cable went live, they're questioning what it will deliver."

    I think the Africans will learn the hard way that what they are promised by business isn't always what they get, but they will still pay for it.

    It's a shame that "those what can afford" in Africa won't give two hoots about the likes of the school in your report which cannot afford the www, much like the same "class" of people in the western world...

  • Comment number 5.

    My company Powerline Technologies has a technology that delivers broadband over electricity networks. We are already working in Tanzania and looking at opportunities in Mozambique and Kenya.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites