Free wi-fi rollout in Rwanda [Daily News (South Africa)]
(Daily News (South Africa) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) It is a scene any visitor would be surprised to see deep in central Africa: a tech-savvy consumer sitting in a restaurant and surfing a broadband connection with a smartphone, tablet and laptop.
But in a region associated with war and genocide, Rwanda is trying to reinvent itself as a regional hi-tech hub by rolling out Smart Kigali - a free citywide and eventually, nationwide wireless connectivity.
"I came to use the internet. Sometimes I download video and books," said South Korean development worker Lee Il-mo, aged 31 and a resident of the Rwandan capital Kigali for the past two years.
"Before I went to restaurants or coffee bars and I had to buy a drink, but here it's a free area," he said, sitting in Kigali City Tower - a zone slated as the city's new tech hub and the one of the first steps of the so-called 'Smart Kigali' project.
Last month the Rwandan government announced it had started to cover the lush green, rolling hills of the capital with wireless hot spots.
This was the first step of a plan to provide wi-fi coverage to all schools and public buildings, markets, bus stations and hotels in the city and, in the long-term, to the entire country.
Rwanda's minister of Information Technology, Jean Philibert Nsengimana, said he wanted to see the plan "accelerate growth of the internet sector" and attract more investors.
"Connectivity is one of the most important draws for business in this age of digital economy," he said, asserting that free wi-fi was merely a step in the direction of a much bigger infrastructure goal - that of fourth generation, or 4G, access.
In June, the Rwandan government signed South Korea's KT Corp to build a 4G network that it wants delivered to 95 percent of the country, up from the estimated 10 percent who have 3G access.
"Broadband access," said Nsengimana, "has to be considered as an essential, just like water and electricity."
Rwanda is ranked as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa, while the World Bank's ease of doing business index ranked Rwanda 52nd out of 185 countries this year, the third best in sub-Saharan Africa.
But the government wants to push economic growth to 11.5 percent for each of the next five years, drive poverty from 45 percent to below the 30 percent mark and reach middleincome status by 2020 - no easy task for a mainly agricultural economy.
"Smart Kigali really is a test, it is giving people a taste |of better things to come," explained Alex Ntale, director of Rwanda's information and communications technology chamber.
"But it is not perpetual, someone has to pay at the end of the day. The private companies are testing a business model… they are trying to find out if the market is really there," he said.
Mark Bohlund, an economist with IHS Global Insight, said he was optimistic Rwanda would develop "into a regional business services centre", at least serving the war-torn, but mineral rich east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But he also pointed to tough competition from Kenya, which is ahead on mobile banking technology and home to offices of technology giants such as Intel, Google and Microsoft. - Sapa-AFP
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