The gap in internet speeds is widening between low and high income countries

The internet is faster than this in Madagascar
The internet is faster than this in Madagascar
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
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It’ll take over 22 hours to download a 5-gigabyte movie in oil-wealthy Equatorial Guinea, the worst ranked African country whereas in Taiwan, top of the broadband speed league, it will take only eight minutes.

The difference in download times mirrors the growing gap in internet speeds between the top and worst ranked countries, according to UK analytics firm Cable, which did over 276 million speed tests in over 200 countries.

While global average speeds increased 20% over the past year, much of that growth has happened in developed nations which are already home to established connectivity infrastructure. As a result, while the top 100 countries in the table made speed gains of 4.08 megabits per second (Mbps), the bottom 100 gained an average of only 0.47Mbps.


Local champions

For the second year running, Madasgascar has topped average broadband speed rankings among African countries. Even further, ranking 33rd globally, Madagascar’s internet speed still outpaces several European countries, including the United Kingdom.

Madagascar’s fast internet speeds represent a paradox as it is one of Africa’s poorest countries with around three out of every four citizens living on less than $1.90 a day as of 2017. But the speeds are largely down to East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy), a 10,000 kilometer-long undersea fiber optic cable which stretches from Sudan to South Africa and serves Madagascar’s urban centers. The fast speeds have also fostered Madagascar’s emergence as a global digital outsourcing outpost, especially for Francophone clients. With nearly 250 business processing and outsourcing companies, the sector now employs over 10,000 people.

While Africa’s fastest internet speed is in one of its poorest countries, its slowest speed is in  Equatorial Guinea, one of its richest. With a gross national income per capita that’s more than 12 times higher than Madagascar’s, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea has vastly larger resources. However, the slow internet speeds and broad lack of infrastructure also reflect the country’s alarmingly poor social development in comparison with its riches.

Equatorial Guinea is one of the six African nations where average broadband speeds are lower than 1Mbps. With a mean download speed of 22.57Mbps, Madagascar is also the only African country with speeds higher than 10Mbps—the minimum speed required for consumers “to fully participate in a digital society” according to Ofcom, UK’s telecoms regulator.

Internet access costs have actually dropped over the past year according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), but it’s not happening quickly enough to bridge “the existing digital divide” between low-income and middle-income countries globally.

Some improvement may be on the horizon though with more African countries likely to experience significantly faster internet speeds with the world’s largest technology companies investing in underwater cable infrastructure in a bid to corner swathes of the market as more Africans get online. Facebook and Google are leading the charge with a planned undersea cable by Google expected to have 20 times the capacity of the most recent projects laid in the region.

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