North Africa: World Bank Announces Broadband Connectivity Initiative, New Focus On Citizen Participation in ICT Solutions


The World Bank has launched a regional initiative to improve broadband connectivity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by bringing utilities' fiber optic networks into broadband use. The Bank also announced a new focus on citizen participation in the creation of information and communication technologies (ICT) solutions to development problems, building on the success of the Cairo WaterHackathon.

The World Bank's broadband connectivity initiative will study the potential for developing regional broadband backbone networks in MENA and prepare the ground for new investments. It will use a new approach that leverages already-deployed infrastructure from other utilities, such as electricity, transport or oil and gas. The study is expected to tackle the main bottlenecks to broadband connectivity in the region, in particular providing redundancy (extra capacity) to existing international connectivity and opening alternative backbone networks in domestic markets.

"Worldwide, broadband is becoming an essential infrastructure for innovation, economic growth, and competitiveness," said Doyle Gallegos, Practice Leader, Connectivity Infrastructure, World Bank. "This World Bank initiative will help increase MENA countries' capacity to cope with the tremendous predicted increase in broadband traffic and to compete in the 21st century's global market."

The MENA region has been actively increasing broadband connections and, as of today, broadband connects over a quarter of MENA households. Broadband traffic in the region is predicted to grow over 100 percent in the next five years, making MENA the fastest growing region in the world with Sub-Saharan Africa.

The World Bank study will cover the region's international and domestic connectivity and will produce four country case studies focused on utility infrastructure use in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. In addition, the World Bank will look at broadband-based applications to increase operational efficiency and competitiveness of utilities, starting with a smart-grid pilot project in Jordan. Findings from these activities will be shared through regional workshops aimed at boosting investment in the region, particularly in utilities' fiber-optic networks.

The broadband connectivity initiative is part of the World Bank's Arab World Initiative and is supported by the Public Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF) and the Korean Government. Jointly with InfoDev, the World Bank has also produced the Broadband Strategies Handbook, a tool providing hands-on knowledge of broadband market, technology, and policy action.

Cairo hosted the first-ever WaterHackathon in October 2011 which brought together Egyptian technologists with water specialists to brainstorm innovative ICT solutions for Egypt's biggest water challenges. A hackathon in this context is a series of events that source problem statements from citizens, civil society, and development experts; build sectoral and digital literacy for technologists and development practitioners; and allow these partners to collectively identify technical pilot solutions.

"The Cairo WaterHackathon allowed the World Bank to 'do things differently' in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and engage local communities interested in shaping the future of their country," explained Carlo Rossotto, MENA Regional Coordinator, ICT, World Bank. "Based on this success, the World Bank will increasingly use citizen participation in the creation of ICT solutions as a mainstream tool to tackle development challenges."

- A mobile and web-based application for more equitable water distribution, enabling farmers to remotely control irrigation (Salt & Rocks team)
 - An application for irrigation optimization and water saving in agricultural production, using smart mobile devices to enhance collection of field data (Abu Erdaan team)
- A concept addressing water saving in industrial line production, using data visualization and SMS and web updates on water consumption (Run Time team)

The winning teams continue to develop their ideas. Team Abu Erdaan has managed to develop and beta-test its application and is now shortlisted among the top fifty competitors in Google's Business Competition in Egypt. As a follow-up, the World Bank is planning a Transport Hackathon in Cairo later this year.