Jan. 7 - The growing importance of Africa to the world economy is in focus as IMF Chief Christine Lagarde talks to business leaders in Kenya. The continent offers many opportunities but also many challenges, particularly when only a small proportion of the population has access to the internet. Andrew Potter reports on a new project to increase internet access by using spare parts of the television spectrum.
For most parts of the world fast internet has become one of life's essentials. Not so in Africa. Only 16 percent of the billion people here use it. Getting online has made a huge difference for schools like this one in Nanyuki in Kenya. (SOUNDBITE) (English) JUDY MUCHOKI, STUDENT GAKAWA SECONDARY SCHOOL SAYING: "It has helped me to do revision work. When we did not have computers I was not able to come copy some questions from the computers but now I am able to copy and be able to revise well." To try and give more of Africa the internet, tech giant Microsoft has joined the Kenyan government and one of the country's telecommunications providers Indigo Telecom. Indigo will provide the hardware, Microsoft the software, but crucially it's being delivered a price people here can afford. Tonia Kariuki is with Microsoft. (SOUNDBITE) (English) TONIA KARIUKI, MARKETING DIRECTOR MICROSOFT 4AFRIKA, SAYING: "We believe in it from two ways right, so the first way is the role technology has to play in terms of bringing new socio-economic development to the people on the continent, but the second thing is the role that Africans have to play in terms of their impact on technology built by Africans for Africans to be consumed within Africa and in the rest of the world at large as well. And so from a Microsoft perspective, we see the real value in terms the amazing content, amazing product amazing access to information, resources, education, learning through and powered by our technology that's where opportunity lies for us." The project provides free wireless connection by tapping into unused parts of the television spectrum called 'white spaces' to send and receive data signals. These modified TV waves can travel for 10 kilometres, making them ideal for isolated villages. It's broadening the horizons of people like musican John Mutesh. (SOUNDBITE) (Swahili) JOHN MUTESH, LOCAL MUSICIAN SAYING: "The issue of me commuting to town was not working. I spent a lot on bus fare and I wasted time, yet I was not gaining anything. But here I do not have to go far. You see, I work around here and when I want to come here to do some work there is no problem. I can come here direct do my research when I want to." One hurdle is regulation, and fears the service could encroach on bandwidth reserved for air traffic control, the military or emergency services. Some broadcasters are also concerned about interference with their signals. As well as Kenya, Microsoft is running the pilot scheme in Tanzania and South Africa and says it's in talks with ten other countries.