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A decade after Kenya got undersea fibre optic cables, getting internet in rural areas is still elusive

John Mwangi is a Kenyatta University graduate student finalizing his MBA research and doing online his accountancy and financial examinations from various bodies, both locally and internationally.

To do his research, he spends his time in the field interviewing coffee and dairy farmers just a few kilometers away from Nairobi and even nearer his Juja residency. His biggest challenge, he says is getting reliable and affordable internet both fiber or wireless enough for him and his family.

“Relying on modems is no longer reliable and affordable for my work and family. If I run all my company’s systems here and also use the same internet for my research and let my family use it, I will end up using a lot of money each month. So I have to use sparingly and limit everyone else,” he told TechMoran.

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Though Kenya got its undersea cables in 2009, today, Kenya only has less than 100,000 fixed fibre optic subscriptions and satellite and terrestrial data wireless subscriptions are no good. Mobile data subscriptions are around 31 million too according to stats obtained from the Communications Authority of Kenya.

The coming of fiber in 2009 was a big door opener for both youths, SMEs, private sector, government and institutions. Those that got connected to fiber first launched into the deep. Build applications, some build companies out of the applications and these was followed by a remarkable mobile technology revolution in Kenya.

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New startups and ventures cropped up, making Kenya a top contender in the running for the title of Africa’s Silicon Savannah and fiber internet too saw tech hubs sprout across the city. Right, left and center. These led to tech events, awards, competitions and pitches. Innovation was the catchphrase of the day but as Kenya did that, peri-urban and rural areas were all forgotten. Even the government promise of setting up tech hubs was only fulfilled on paper.

Accessing home internet is still difficult, particularly in places other than Nairobi; outskirts and remote areas alike.

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“Internet penetration happens in urban areas. The problem is distribution within counties,” explains Meoli Kashorda, the director of Kenya Education Network, (KENET), an organization charged with connecting all schools to fiber internet in the country.

“Networks have ended the isolation of African scientists and researchers. You now have access to information from the more developed countries, and this is changing the way people think,” adds Kashorda.

However, this is not to insinuate a lack thereof, there are an assortment of ISPs, they however charge exorbitant prices for mediocre speeds, exploiting citizens who don’t know any better. The price of monthly broadband winds up costing more than the national minimum wage and the curtains behind the window to the globe are slammed shut before the underdogs eyes.

This is a situation commonly observed amongst several African countries. Nii Quaynor, the board chairman of the National Information Technology Agency (NITA) and director of the Internet Society in Ghana, also known as the father of the internet in Africa, once said, “Africa is not changing as fast as the rest of the world and the gap is widening.” On the bright side, Kenya ranks relatively highly in terms of broadband connectivity access at low costs, amongst other African countries. This is mainly due to geographic luck: Kenya happens to be along the coast, hence is in close proximity to cable landing stations. Rural areas far from these stations suffer as well.

Mobile internet connections are very popular in Africa, courtesy of pocket friendly smartphones. Most of the African population has access to a smartphone, which is also their only way to access the internet. Mobile internet is far cheaper than broadband in most countries, Kenya in particular, hence most people take to using their mobile phone hotspots to access the internet via their computers. This, unfortunately, can only go so far. The hotspots will prove too expensive to use for long hours or on activities that require high speeds and lots of data.

Another challenge is network connectivity. Companies offering more affordable internet have very spotty network the buyer has no opportunity to use their massive package before it eventually times out, making use of mobile data a painfully frustrating experienced. Quite recently the Communications Authority of Kenya fined local service providers an approximate KES 300 million for failing to meet the minimum threshold for compliance for the fourth year in a row. This included major players like Safaricom and Airtel. The commission disclosed that a framework has been set up in collaboration with stakeholders as part of efforts to improve the assessment of compliance by the operators. “The new framework will see CA assess both data and voice services and increase its sampling rates countrywide,” said CA.

Fortunately for us companies like Kenya’s BRCK are actively coming up with solutions to tackle this problem of poor internet coverage is a serious one. Earlier in 2017, the Kenyan-based startup launched its latest innovation that is designed to provide Africans in remote areas have access to A-class internet and all the available content that come with it. The device, dubbed the SupaBRCK, is an improvement on their original 2014 innovation, the BRCK.

These devices are more durable and reliable than the previously used modems, which were often fried whenever the power spontaneously went off and returned: a frequent occurrence in the country. MiFi were more reliable but do not support more than a handful of devices at a time and have subpar battery life.

The Supabrck and Brck family (photo credits: Techcrunch)

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