Mapping the Internet: Emerging markets

July 16, 2012, 9:00 AM UTC

An undersea fiber-optic cable hauled ashore in Mombasa, Kenya

FORTUNE — It’s one thing to bring fiber-optic cable to the coast of a landmass; it’s quite another to then build that network into the interior of that landmass. Without much infrastructure already in place, the cost of new broadband cables is extremely high. The result is a bitter irony: Those who can afford it the least must pay the most to go online. In Africa seven undersea fiber-optic cables have made landfall in the past two years, and six more will arrive by 2013. But who will build this network into the continent, and what will it look like?

In Lagos, entrepreneur Muhammed Rudman grapples with these questions. Rudman runs Nigeria’s sole Internet exchange point (IX). An IX connects two networks, like a highway interchange, and reduces cost by aiding data flow. There is, however, a new path emerging, one that will minimize the reliance on such physical structures. If the traditional Internet is, literally, a series of tubes, this alternate structure is in the air. It’s wireless. It’s mobile. And its users are already those in emerging markets, who do more business on their phones, via SMS, than anyone else.

This story is from the July 23, 2012 issue of Fortune.

More: Mapping the Internet

Wiring America
Undersea cables
Financial hubs
Emerging markets