Out of Africa: the sky is the limit

Mobile phones are the rage in Africa, but their success should not obscure an uncomfortable reality: Internet access is relatively small and too costly.

The solution is neither clear nor inexpensive. Two problems are critical. First, there need to be better communications links within and between African countries. Second, the African continent must have stronger links with the rest of the world.

Undersea cables, coming on stream, seem likely to solve the second problem. The first problem is more nettlesome, though bright minds envision an answer in the sky.

Satellites ought to do the trick, say Google and a communications innovator, Greg Wyler, whom the search-engine company is supporting.

The effort by Wyler's Ob3 Networks, which would involve 16 satellites, is expensive -- $700 million by one reckoning. There's also the question of whether the approach is commercially viable, or would require long-term subsidies from outside donors.

Definitive answers will not come quickly. The task of "wiring" Africa -- amid all the hoopla over the penetration of mobile phones in the poorest parts of the world -- remains daunting. And yet without greater Internet usage, the information economy in Africa will suffer gravely.

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