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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 March 2006, 15:25 GMT
Warning over African internet cable
Campaigners fear that a new fibre optic cable which could revolutionise internet use in East Africa could become a missed opportunity.

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The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) says a similar cable linking West and Southern Africa has not provided the benefits of cheaper, faster internet access because it is controlled by state-owned monopolies - or their privatised successors - which still enjoy near monopolies.

The APC say there will be a similar lack of competition in East Africa, meaning prices will remain high and so high-speed access like broadband will still be beyond the reach of most people.

Telecoms analyst Eddie Murphy told the BBC News website that the cable will definitely make a "significant difference" to download speeds because at present, there is nothing similar in East Africa.

He does agree, however, that prices are likely to stay high unless other companies are allowed access to the East African Submarine Cable System (Eassy).

Work is due to start on Eassy in the next few months and it is expected to come online by the end of next year.

APC executive director Anriette Esterhuysen said there have been two problems with the way the existing Sat3 cable - which goes from Portugal around West and Southern Africa to Asia - has been used.

  • Firstly that countries without a direct connection to the cable - such as Namibia - are reliant for their access on a single foreign company, which can charge exorbitant fees without fear of competition;
  • Secondly that companies which dominate their domestic markets are under little pressure to provide a fast, cheap service to their consumers.

Ms Esterhuysen says Nitel still dominates the Nigerian market and has been slow to offer broadband to consumers.

In contrast, Sat3 has led to a huge expansion in internet access in Ghana, she says.

'Naive'

But Mr Murphy from the UK-based Communications Research Network said the idea that telecoms companies would build this cable and not want to increase the number of people with internet access is "risible".

He said that a lot of money is needed and the businesses will want to recoup their investments.

High prices mean that there are a significant number of countries where the full capacity of the cable has not been used
Russell Southwood
Internet analyst
"The criticisms being levelled show a fundamental naivety about how business works."

Eassy has failed to answer questions from the BBC News website about the concerns raised.

The project finance is still being finalised and APC says that 19 of the 24 African companies which have signed up are incumbent operators, likely to be able to dominate their domestic markets.

Some companies are already building satellite connections to improve internet access but the cable would be much cheaper.

It should also mean that e-mails sent for example from Zambia to Tanzania would no longer have to go via the UK, or the US, making a huge difference to delivery times.

Competition

But campaigners fear that the cable might not actually make much difference to consumers because of high prices.

"Rates on Sat3 have been as high as $25,000 per Mb per second per month but are now around $10-15,000. The actual cost to the operator is around $2,000," says Russell Southwood of Balancing Act, a UK-based internet company specialising in Africa.

Cyber cafe in Africa
East Africa's internet users are desperate for faster connections
"These are very large margins. High prices mean that there are a significant number of countries where the full capacity of the cable has not been used."

But South Africa's Telkom, which is involved in both Sat3 and Eassy, says the existing cable has already made a big difference to internet connections.

"Since the introduction of the Sat3 cable to the market in 2002, international bandwidth prices for South African users reduced by approximately 70%," spokeswoman Lulu Letlape told the BBC News website.

Telkom's monopoly in the South African landline market is due to be broken, possibly by the end of the year.

The new competitor will also enjoy access to the cables, Ms Letlape says.

But APC and the other campaigners are not convinced.

They are calling for the financing of Eassy - and therefore its use - to be opened up to smaller companies, who they say would be more dynamic in selling internet access to consumers.


Are you reading this article in Africa? How good is your internet connection? Are you looking forward to Eassy? Have connections in West and Southern Africa improved with the new cable?

Your comments:

The internet connection is still as bad as it was been previously. It is slow but very slow at midday. In our media lab at my college, we sometimes have to log-out of the computer during the computer or designing classes simply because the internet server cannot accommodate all the students online.
Atuhe, Windhoek, Namibia

I look after the technology for an office in Johannesburg. A couple of years ago it used to cost 90 pence a minute to call. Competition and internet technology now means that the same call would cost four pence a minute. This price reduction followed the commissioning of the new fibre optic link. Whilst the telecommunication companies can get away with high charges in other countries there is no motivation to implement lower cost technologies.
Charles Smith, London, UK

I am afraid that the reduction in bandwidth prices in South Africa, as stated by Telkom's Lulu Letlape, is not felt by the consumer. I for one cannot afford personal ADSL at home, because the monthly charges are more than my medical aid, and the service and speeds are non existent. Since ADSL has been introduced in South Africa not much has happened on the price/performance front. It has remained stagnant for way too long now: Prices are ridiculous for what you get, and waiting up to six months (or more) to get a line installed is typical.
Rudolph Keown, Cape Town, South Africa

The comment made by Telkom is untrue. There has been no reduction in international bandwidth in South Africa yet. In fact, in some cases since 1 November 2005, some international bandwidth prices has actually increased by more than 600%.
Willem Smith, Bloemfontein, South Africa

Can't wait for Eassy - hopefully it will lower prices. I have not seen this 70% reduction of bandwidth prices. Telkom is known for twisting the truth. Yes, there has been a reduction in international call rates (but not data rates), but this was mainly due to VOIP being legalized.
Andre Fourie, Cape Town, South Africa

As an expatriate living in Lagos, Nigeria, my broadband internet is surprisingly far more reliable than my connections in Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington, DC. This connection, speed, and reliability comes at a cost of nearly $150 per month with a $500 start up cost. If Eassy can provide competition, or cut down on the cost of maintaining the proper infrastructure without government support, then I am certainly looking forward to it.
Amy, Lagos, Nigeria

Our connection is still by the telephone and very very slow. No fibre optic yet, and the service is very expensive.
Terry Madden, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

The connection is horrible over here. Sometimes it is fast but most of the time it can take 20 to 30 minutes just to connect and obviously it's slow to surf. Prices are very high but there is no demand so I don't blame monopoly for this. Other than BBC and other news no-one is really interested in the internet anyway. Companies will only bankrupt if more come here to compete. It was the same slow speed when I went for vacation in Nairobi.
Mariam, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Regulated competition, and fair access to major infrastructure such as these cables by more than one firm, is a must. The monopoly telecoms firm in Botswana has just rolled out ADSL using four ISPs where a limited 768Mb service will cost about Euro 240pm to the ISP, plus extra fees to the telecoms firm for service, compulsory installation and compulsory purchase of a modem. Although circumstances and volumes are different to those in more developed countries, regional governments must seek to develop regulated competition to share the benefits of the improved technology. If they don't, technology remains out of reach for all except a tiny minority, as the prices remain high to pay large dividends to the government shareholder.
Graeme Keay, Gaborone, Botswana

Internet access has improved in few selected places such as the College of Medicine and some internet cafes that can afford broadband connection. I work for the national broadcaster, MBC, and the connection is still dial-up; slow and prone to break down without warning. The fees at the cafes are exorbitant for the man in the street. The long and short of it, is that we are yet to see the tangible benefits of the cable!
Joe Mlenga, Blantyre, Malawi

Ms Letape's comments are blatantly untrue: international bandwidth is ridiculously expensive in South Africa, and has not reduced by the amount she claims. Even countries like Reunion and Mauritius (tiny in comparison to South Africa and with much lower levels of infrastructure have lower priced bandwidth than South Africa). Telkom as a partially state-owned monopoly continues to set unacceptably high pricing in order to shore up their profits in South Africa. Access to telecommunications is a key driver of economic growth, and Telkom's actions are severely retarding the growth of Southern Africa.
Andrew Fraser, Johannesburg, South Africa

The main problem with internet access in Nigeria is the high cost of access. Nitel which holds a monopoly on Sat3 is deliberately slow, short-sighted and unyielding to suggestions. Current developments in the sector have been ignored by the management. Here we have access through the ISDN technology and the nearest POP is 400km away. Downtimes are a common occurrence - 30% of the day.
Ekanem Ekpa, Eket, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria

SAT3 has not really made a difference in Nigeria yet but rather has become a major political hot potato delaying the privatization of the former state monopoly, NITEL. On a visit to Ghana last October, I noticed that the Accra cybercafes offered cheaper and faster browsing than in Lagos. Internet connections in Nigeria are very slow and expensive though the situation is a lot better than five - six years ago. Cybercafes using VSAT are ubiquitous in Lagos and some private landline and cellphone companies offer net access.
Ndubisi Obiorah, Lagos, Nigeria

Internet connection in Accra is quite unreliable. GT, the sole operator of the SAT3 cable is not efficiently utilising it and as such costs are high, and efficiency, very poor. There was previously a boom of internet cafes, but almost all have closed down now due to high recurrent costs. Try downloading a 50 Mb file, and see the hours it will take. In the rural areas, there is virtually no internet connection. And the internet in these areas, costs about three to five times the internet charge in Accra. Some of the universities are relying on VSAT connection at exorbitant rates which they prefer because of its reliability.
Don, Accra, Ghana

We use a satellite broadband connection for our office and the speed is quite decent. Though, it is quite clear that ISPs providing these services do realise that customers are often at their mercy and services are often not what is promised and since customers do not have too many options, they have to pay for these through their noses although not too happily. Of late, Ghana Telecom has come in and offered ADSL broadband services to office and residential consumers and this has been quite a revelation. I use the above service at home for about US$100/month and the speed is better than the one at the office (where we pay nearly five times more). However, service is quite appalling. If there is a problem, it could take quite a long while before it is rectified as the technicians have to be lured with the usual sops to have the job done. But, times have certainly changed in Africa. Until about five years ago, broadband connection was unheard of or was exorbitant and most people would go to cyber cafe to check mail but now more and more people have started buying computers for homes as well and are willing to pay for the same.
Raja, Accra, Ghana

Well, I live in Egypt, and I must say the quality of the internet connection is fairly high when dealing with local servers. I play online games fairly regularly, but unfortunately due to the lack of 'proper' cabling between Egypt and the rest of the world, all game servers off the African continent are subject to fairly high pings, which degrade performance and slow down games considerably. It would be more beneficial to create a fibre link between Egypt and Europe, for example, since there isn't a monopoly here, and many businesses would be able to take advantage of cutting edge technology to simply their operations.
Talha Asmal, Cairo, Egypt




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