INTERNET CAFES THRIVE AS ALGERIAN VIOLENCE SUBSIDES

Internet

Internet cafes are mushrooming across Algeria as the country returns to normality after more than a decade of violence which kept it isolated and deprived of new technologies and investments.

The number of Internet cafes across the North African country jumped to 5,000 by the end of 2004 from 100 in 2000, Telecom Minister Amar Tou said in comments published Tuesday.

"2005 will be the year of the Internet," said Tou, who is spearheading a modernisation of the sector considered key for a country with three-quarters of the population below the age of 30.

Emerging from years of Islamic-linked violence which caused the deaths of up to 200,000 people, Algeria's growth potential is among the highest in the Middle East and North Africa, analysts say.

There are 1.5 million Internet users in Algeria out of a population of 32 million, with most not yet hooked up to ADSL or high-speed Internet.

"We have Internet access at the office but it's very slow so I do a lot of my work from the cybercafe," said 25-year-old Selma Fatnassi, a technical director in the drugs industry.

Despite wealth largely drawn from vast oil and gas reserves, Algeria lags neighbors in technology and telecoms because authorities spent most of the 1990s fighting militants who threatened the very existence of the state. Armed with a fresh $55-billion, five-year spending plan, the government says it is now determined to pull Algeria out of isolation and compete with neighboring countries.

Morocco and Tunisia have aggressively modernized technology, with call centers for European firms a strong growth area.

Analysts say the lack of new technologies has held back foreign investment outside of Algeria's energy sector, but the opening of the economy has led to a boom in telecoms.

The number of fixed line and mobile phone users has jumped to 31 percent of the population, versus five percent in 2000, while revenues in the sector grew to 150 billion dinars ($2.14 billion) from 2002 to 2004 -- a rise of over 400 percent.

Algiers recently awarded a fixed-line license to an Egyptian consortium, including Orascom Telecom, that is expected to boost Internet access with a broadband network, and has also sold licenses to firms promoting calls via the Internet.

Reuters