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Will Africa join broadband revolution?

By John Makeni
BBC Focus on Africa magazine

A way may be emerging for East African countries to circumvent the mess in telecommunications in the region - and it is rising out of the sea.

Workers placing a hi-res cable
Three main new fibre-optic cable lines are being laid

From having no undersea cable links to the rest of the world, East Africa is now poised to have three.

As a result, many businesses are investing in finger-sized underwater fibre-optic cables that will open doors to the rest of the world.

It could not come too soon. Currently, many African countries rely heavily on satellite connections for internet and telephone calls.

Developed countries in Europe, North America and Asia embraced fibre-optic technology several years ago, and now boast over 500 cables. But the developing world is far behind; Bangladesh - with a population of over 150 million people - has three fibre-optic cables, while the whole of Africa has just 10.

Monopolised benefits

The privately funded Seacom cable - which is expected to be fully operational by June - will be the first to launch, followed by the East African Marine Cable System (EASSy) - which is being funded by the private-sector arm of the World Bank as well as by regional telecommunications companies.

It is expected to be ready in time for the World Cup in 2010 in South Africa.

The third cable being laid is The East African Marine System (Teams).

It is being spearheaded by the Kenyan government as a response to the EASSy cable, and what it sees as terms in that project that are too favourable to South Africa.

All in all, these projects mean that within the next year the Kenyan port of Mombasa, among others on the east coast, will be well connected to economic hot-spots in the Middle East as well as South Africa, India and Europe.

But Africa has been here before.

Cables being laid on the ocean floor
The cables are being laid on the floor of the Indian ocean

South Africa is currently connected to Europe and Spain through a single fibre-optic cable, the South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable (SAT-3/Safe), that runs up West Africa. But capacity here has been insufficient to offer fast broadband - in fact, it is 10 times slower than Seacom is supposed to offer.

Also, the ownership structure of the SAT-3/Safe cable has resulted in a few telecommunication companies monopolising its benefits - which keeps prices high and so out of reach of many.

While other cables are in the pipeline for West Africa, East Africa is a blank canvas.

Much like a rural town disconnected from a railway line, the region has never had intra-African or international cable connections before. As a result, it has been reliant on satellite connection.

Fibre-optic cables seem a much better proposition.

They are cheaper than satellites and transform signals into light, and so can transmit over long distances at high speeds.

This means not only that broadband will be much more easily available at a cheaper cost - bringing with it access to telephone services , film and audio downloads - but that online services such as mobile banking can grow.

In preparation for the launch of Seacom, major internet service providers in Kenya have already rolled out cables along the country's highways, which will link inland stations to the coastline cables.

Promises

So how much of a difference will this all make to the average consumer in Kenya?

While for the past several years it has been possible to use the internet to make long-distance telephone calls in Kenya, the costs and the speeds of connection have not met many people's expectations.

Kenyan entrepreneurs like Sammy Macharia - who owns an internet cafe in Nairobi - have high hopes that business-operating costs will come down once Seacom is working - potentially from $250 (£170) to $100 (£68) per month for an internet service provider subscription.

Kenyan students using computers
Only a few Kenyans have their own computer

However Mr Macharia is concerned that the market is regulated by the "invisible hand" of the government.

"The prices might go down, but the industry is regulated by the government, which can easily determine the market prices," he says.

"They have promised cheaper bandwidth, so we are waiting."

Security is another concern. Experts warn that the project is prone to risks from even subtle changes in the light travelling through the fibre-optic cables - making them especially vulnerable to vandals.

"Systems security can no longer be about e-mail protection, network anti-malicious software and an odd denial of service protection," says Bernard Ajwang, a Kenyan expert based at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom.

And some analysts say that the three competing cables due to land shortly may actually create an over-supply of bandwidth in the East African market.

Very few Kenyan households even have an internet connection and not many own a personal computer - indeed, there are just three million internet users in the whole country, out of a total population of close on 40 million.

The statistics for the rest of Africa tell a similar story - of the 945 million people living on the continent, just 54 million use the internet.

For all the talk of opening up access to broadband, this could end up being one big white elephant.

map showing Africa's new fibre-optic cables



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