By Parach Mach
JUBA, South Sudan (AA) - In South Sudan, where the cost of services has become prohibitively high due to its war-torn economy, Internet providers (ISPs) are not proving to be an exception.
With ISPs relying on satellite which needs to be paid for with hard currency, Internet users end up paying extra to cover the deficit incurred by providers to keep the service running.
Most Internet users in the country, including hard-hit university students, have endured several months without online access due to the growing gap between costs and their income.
Some are calling for the government to address this with subsidies. But with so many demands on the public coffers to implement a recent peace agreement, stabilize the economy, boost security and address unemployment, high illiteracy and poverty, it is not clear if getting more people online is a priority.
Marial Deng, 23, who studies at the University of Juba said he no longer has access to the Internet. He cannot study or go online to download vital materials because the Internet is getting too expensive and sometimes is not even available at all.
“The issue of Internet [access] has been a problem for most university students. For three months now, I have had no access to Internet studies because of the cost,” Deng says.
“Most Internet cafes here on the campus charge 15 minutes at 50 South Sudanese pounds, approximately $3, and it is set in a way that 45 seconds are a ‘minute’ instead of 60 seconds, so it finishes quickly before you do what you want to do.”
“Before the civil war it was relatively cheap,” he says, but now getting information is a problem: “This has impeded our access to information.”
South Sudan is one of the most expensive countries in Africa for Internet use with an average retail price of bandwidth via satellite currently at around $4,000 per megabit (MB), according to a source close to the industry.
However, Internet penetration stands at less than one percent of the population, with broadband subscribers counted in the hundreds – saying a lot about the region’s woes.
Tesfa Henry, an Ethiopian national who runs an Internet cafe near the University of Juba, says prices charged are prohibitive.
“We adjusted our prices here to match the currency devaluation made by the government. We sometimes allow 15 minutes at 40 pounds to students [or] one hour for 70 pounds; this is actually a throw-away price” Henry explained.
“Students complain the prices are expensive for them, but we are too fair, to be honest, because the data bundles are expensive.”
South Sudan’s former communications minister Rebecca Joshua acknowledged the country’s technological deficit and hopes swift improvement would benefit other spheres, like education and health. “We are just five years old. But ICT [information and communications technology] is an engine that will lift our country to another level,” she tells Anadolu Agency.
“Insecurity caused by two years of civil war impeded the country’s effort to lay a fiber-optic network last year to link the capital Juba with submarine cables in east Africa, to cut the high cost of using the Internet,” Joshua says.
Africa’s biggest funder of ICT, the World Bank, has already approved a $43-million fiber-optic cable project which will connect Kenya to South Sudan. It hopes to raise an additional $98 million from the private sector.
The project is expected to be completed in 2019 and will be South Sudan’s first optic fiber cable since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011.
South Sudan’s progress has been reined in by protracted violence in many parts of the country since 2013, which has killed more than 10,000 people and has set back the nation in its tentative bid to establish infrastructure and respond to basic humanitarian needs.
It has no landline phone network and only 300 kilometers (186 miles) of roads.
A lack of Internet cafes in most suburbs of Juba has also prevented access. Juba resident Andrea Makur is one of those who have never used the Internet.
“A laptop or smart phone is too expensive for me. At home I have no access so I used a phone that does not have Internet,”
Poor connectivity in rural South Sudan and the high prices of Internet-enabled cellular phones has also kept the poor disconnected.
“I work in the countryside and there is network connection. Every time I feel like using the Internet I have to travel for two hours to where there is network,” Taban Susuk says.
Telecommunication companies like South African MTN, and Kuwait’s Zain are forced to retrench, slash salaries and embrace convergence as part of cost-cutting measures to ensure survival worsened by the dollar crisis.
MTN South Sudan, a unit of Africa’s biggest mobile-phone company, said doing business has been hard after its cut jobs and cancelled expansion plans as the war-torn nation battles an economic crisis.
The company invested as much as $170 million in the country over the past two years, without seeing profit, Khumbulani Dhlomo, the firm’s head of corporate services says. The company depends entirely on imported raw materials like diesel to run its machines and foreign suppliers are reluctant to extend credit further, he adds.
Customers in South Sudan have dropped by 15 percent because people are spending 10 times on the same services such call rates, he says. “The company has seen huge decrease in customers. Of course people have to choose between services like buying mobile phones – including expensive Internet – than buying bread.”