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AFRICA, OFFLINE: WAITING FOR THE WEB

Did a U.S. Internet exec overpromise in Rwanda? Or is the challenge of wiring the country just greater than could have been expected?

O* a muggy day in Kigali in 2003, some of the highest-ranking officials in the Rwandan government, including President Paul Kagame, flanked an American businessman, Greg Wyler, as he boldly described how he could help turn their small country into a hub of Internet activity.

Wyler, a Boston executive who made his fortune during the tech boom, said he would lace Rwanda with fiber optic cables, connecting schools, government institutions and homes with low-cost, high-speed Internet service.

Wyler's company, Terracom, was granted a contract to connect 300 schools to the Internet. Later, the company would buy 99 percent of the shares in Rwandatel, the country's national telecommunications company, for $20-million.

But after nearly four years, most of the benefits hailed by him and his company have failed to materialize, Rwandan officials say. "The bottom line is that he promised many things and didn't deliver," said Albert Butare, the country's telecommunications minister.

Wyler, 37, says he sees things quite differently.

Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have made little headway on the continent. Less than 4 percent of Africa's population is connected to the Web.

A lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem. In many countries, communications networks were destroyed during years of civil conflict. Continuing political instability deters governments or companies from investing in new systems. About 75 percent of African Internet traffic has to be routed through Britain, or even the United States, increasing expenses and delivery times.

"Most African governments haven't paid much attention to their infrastructure," said Vincent Oria, an associate professor of computer science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a native of the Ivory Coast. "In places where hunger, AIDS and poverty are rampant, they didn't see it as critical until now."

As of mid July, only one-third of the 300 schools covered in Terracom's contract had high-speed Internet service. All 300 were to have been connected by 2006.

Rwandan officials say the company seems more interested in tapping the more lucrative cell phone market than in being an Internet service provider.

Wyler said there were some things he had not anticipated, particularly the technical challenges of linking Rwanda's Internet network to the rest of the world. The only way to do it is to buy bandwidth capacity on satellites, but there are not enough satellites to meet demand.

"Terracom has done everything it can, " he said. "Because of the technical challenges, the Internet service is as good as it's going to get. But given what we started from, I still think we have accomplished a lot. In the beginning there were a few people with Internet service; now there are thousands."

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