Better information and communication technology (ICT) links would help Africa to unleash its economic potential, United Nations and business leaders said at a press briefing yesterday at UN Headquarters in New York. 

African countries have registered the world's highest mobile phone growth, ranging from 50 to 400 per cent in the last three years, says Dr Hamadoun Touré, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Africa's goal should be to replicate that success in broadband capability, also achieving "Internet access in every village, every school, every university, every hospital".
Lack of Internet access is holding back growth, according to ITU figures. Fewer than 4% of Africans have Internet access, broadband penetration is below 1% and 70% of all continental traffic goes outside Africa, driving up costs for consumers. The cost of Internet connectivity in Africa, says the World Bank, is the highest in the world – about $250-$300 per month.
Africa needed a competitive ICT infrastructure, Dr Touré says. "By bringing optical fibres in some of the networks, by just closing the loops, you will avoid excessive Internet transit costs, bringing down the cost by two-thirds."
China and India had increased both public and private investment in ICT in Africa, and other countries could do the same, he adds. "Once the infrastructure is there, once you have the proper capacity building, you can have real growth, with exponential figures."
Dr Touré believes that a "Marshall Plan" for ICT connectivity was required to provide universal access by 2012.
"ICT is a catalyst, an enabler in all sectors of the economy. This would be the accelerator to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015."
Pressing for aggressive action to build ICT infrastructure, Dr Touré says: "We don't need charity for the ICT field. We need pure business sense."
Mobile telephony in Africa would undoubtedly follow the general trends of other developing regions, says Craig Barrett, Chairman of the UN Global Alliance for ICT and Development and Chairman of the Board of Intel. In China, India and Latin America, "the private sector has gone in and, with spectrum allocation, with competition, has been able to bring inexpensive communications to all of the people. We expect to see that in Africa", he says.
One challenge was connectivity, Barrett says. The average monthly cost for a 256kbps connection was more than the total hardware and software costs. Broadband connectivity costs should ideally fall by more than two-thirds, he said, adding that the gate to Africa's development would be "providing inexpensive connectivity over broad stretches of territory".
The success of Africa's telecom industry, according to Mohsen Khalil, Director of Global ICT at the World Bank Group, had shown investors that in Africa they could "contribute to development and still make money".
About $25-billion in foreign direct investment had been invested in African telecoms in the last 10 years.
Two factors had contributed to the success of the telecom industry: technological innovation in the mobile area and the adoption of liberal policies. What was now needed for broadband expansion were regulations ensuring an even playing field, and public-private partnerships, he says.
"When you give access to a human being, you unleash the power of human innovation and entrepreneurship. It is really so powerful – all they need is access."
The Connect Africa Summit in October in Kigali, Rwanda, will focus on making ICT capability available for economic development and connectivity.
"We will try to push as hard as we can to get the public and private sectors together to achieve this," says Barrett.