30 June 2000

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By continental standards Senegal has a fairly effective telecommunications system. Nevertheless the internet has been slow to expand. Christophe Brun reports on how three linked factors are preventing further growth. He identifies the three "Cs": high costs, the absence of competition for international connectivity and the lack of compelling content.

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Senegal went on-line in March 1996, when the national telco, Société Nationale des Telecommunications (SONATEL) started to offer a full IP service. A subsidiary of SONATEL, Telecom-Plus, appeared as the first Internet Service Provider (ISP) and soon afterwards the first cybercafé of West Africa, Metissacana, was launched.


Since then the number of dial-up subscribers has increased steadily, totalling approximately 11,000 by the second quarter of this year [1]. Nine ISPs are now competing for the retail access market, while SONATEL retains its monopoly over international connectivity. ISPs are required to use SONATEL's IP backbone to connect to the Internet. International connectivity is provided by two Intelsat links (2Mbps on Teleglobe and 64Kbps on MCI), and a 2Mps link using the new fibre-optic submarine cable Atlantis-2.

Telecommunication facilities are good compared to sub-Saharan African standards elsewhere. Nonetheless, there are still several major obstacles to the successful spread of the Internet in the country.

Costs remain an important constraint: the average price of Internet dial-up access in Senegal for 30 hours of on-peak usage per month (including telecommunication charges) is around 92 US$ [2]. This is 75% above the average price in the OECD zone [3]. But at off-peak rates, Senegal offers a similar price: the same 30 hours usage per month package costs around US$38.

While this figure represents less than 0,2% of the average GDP per capita of OECD countries, it makes up to 7% of the Senegal GDP per head. Slashing the cost of dial-up access is a key issue in this context. SONATEL's monopoly over international connectivity while it competes with its own retailers via its subsidiary its Telecom-Plus appears to be a barrier to fair competition and further cost reduction.

Access to the Internet requires computers too. A basic entry-level PC at US$1000 represents twice the GDP per year and per capita; unaffordable for the large majority of the population, of which 54% lives with less than $1 a day [4].

The country's high illiteracy rate also prevents many from using the Net. UNDP estimates that 35.5 % of the adult population is literate while the secondary school enrolment ratio is 20% [5]. Only around 3% of Senegalese young people are in high school and given the scarce equipment available, computer literacy is likely to be even lower.

However, high cost and illiteracy are obstacles that could probably be overcome by models derived from community-based facilities such as cybercafés and telecentres - those small private shops which have been so instrumental in the provision of universal telephone access in Senegal.

Electronic public writers can help to bridge the literacy gap by interfacing computers to assist illiterate users, while voice-recognition software improvements and new screen technologies may hold the key to further progress.

The main challenge to the popularisation of the Internet is in fact neither illiteracy nor cost, but lack of relevant content. Although self-evident to the fortunate few - corporate users, expatriates, the Senegalese upper classes and the research/education community - and leaving aside the hype, the benefits of the Internet remain unclear for the majority of the population.

Very few initiatives have tried so far to address the population's basic needs by using Internet resources. The SIUP [6] and Bobolong [7] projects can be regarded as pioneers in this field. On-line applications that would help to improve people's daily lives don't exist yet however, and the killer applications for which people would be willing to pay despite low-income revenues, and even more important, revolutionize their outlook with regard to ICT, are yet to be invented in Senegal.

Christophe Brun is Information Systems Officer, FAO of the U.N. However the views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily those of FAO.

Sources [1] IRD, Telecom&Internet Senegal, Indicateurs clefs.

[2] IRD, Telecom&Internet Senegal, Tarifs.

[3] OCDE, Internet Access Price Comparison, March 2000.

[4],[5] UNDP, Human Development Report 2000.

[6] Systeme d'information Urbain Populaire

[7] Bobolong Enda Cyberpop, END,