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Page last updated at 16:17 GMT, Friday, 18 September 2009 17:17 UK

East Africa comes up to speed

Dan Simmons
BBC Click, Mombasa

Getting online in East Africa can be a slow, frustrating, and expensive experience. Now, though, a new high-speed undersea cable promises to bring East Africa up to speed.

Kevin, a student at Charles Lwanga Secondary
We'll get more from online learning

St Charles Lwanga Secondary student

Pupils at the St Charles Lwanga Secondary School in Mombasa, Kenya would love to keep up-to-date with world events online but despite having 30 computers at the school, not one is connected to the internet.

For these lessons, the books locked away in the library are still the main source for research. And that is not unusual. IT charities in Kenya now say getting the hardware is no longer their biggest challenge.

"We work with about 750 learning institutions in this country, and all of these have computers but only about 5% have access to the internet," said Tom Musili, executive director of Computers For Schools Kenya.

It comes down to simple maths. The chalkboard still rules because at $300 (£184) a month for net access there needs to be a significant price cut before it is a viable option.

Pigeon race

In the computer lab, students told me they need access to the web now - to be competitive and stay up date.

"Apart from the teaching that we normally get from our teachers we'll get more through online learning and we'll know how progress has been made in different scientific fields," said one student, Kevin.

Frustration with high prices and slow internet speeds has been growing across East Africa for several years.

Winston the pigeon
Winston the pigeon took two hours to carry a memory stick 60 miles

In a stunt earlier this month, one firm in South Africa claimed it was quicker to send information by taping a memory card to a carrier pigeon than use so-called broadband. The pigeon won by a mile.

From businesses to doctors to ordinary users, connections throughout East Africa are generally slow, expensive, and unreliable. Forget video - many here think twice before downloading a high-res photo.


But now there is a new option that has the potential to be both cheaper and much quicker - high-speed submarine fibre optic cables linking East Africa to the rest of the globe.

The cables are capable of carrying 1,280 Gigabits (Gbps). They made landfall in Mombasa just a few months ago and owners Seacom say the cables have already quadrupled the region's available bandwidth and is capable of increasing it 200 fold if needed.

"The whole of the world is wired apart from this region, so for us it is very exciting, apart from bringing opportunities to this country that had been forgotten by the cable revolution," said Mahmoud Nour, Seacom's landing station manager.

Tonee Ndungu
The question is, will it get to my doorstep, will it really reach the people that need it
Tonee Ndungu
Wazimba Youth Foundation

As in most African cities, most people here own a mobile. They like to feel connected. And now the demand to get online is growing too, despite the hurdles.

Most ordinary East Africans access the internet in a cyber cafe - which has the advantages of no outlay for equipment, no expensive monthly contracts, and no need for a landline - which is important, because most East Africans do not have one. But it does mean that the connection here has to be shared by everyone, and gives you little more than twice the speed of dial up.

The owner of the Blue Fin Cyber Cafe, Rupen Chohan, said the new cable should make a difference - allowing him to cut download times by half but keeping prices the same.

"I'm quite happy and positive about it, I'm looking forward to the fast speeds because I've had a lot of foreigners coming in and many have complained about the slow speeds. We look forward to being competitive with the rest of the world."


Broadband may have arrived here and some are using it, but competition between internet service providers (ISPs) has not really got going. Some are capping downloads, Mr Chohan says, while others are offering true broadband speeds but at sky-high prices.

For many, the excitement at the cable's arrival is mixed with scepticism.

Seacom is the first fibre optic cables to land in East Africa
Links region to Europe, India and South Africa
Cables have a capacity of 1280 Gigabits per second (Gbps)
Other cables, including Teams and Eassy, expected to come online soon

"This connectivity will be the most important thing for my generation since independence, but the question is, will it get to my doorstep, will it really reach the people that need it? Will it be for Kenyans everywhere or will it be for specific Kenyans?," said Tonee Ndungu, from the Wazimba Youth Foundation.

And the broadband deals on offer now the cable has arrived are still beyond the reach of most Kenyans.

"A 1Mb download will still cost the client $78 (£48) per month - previously they were paying $78 dollars for a 512 [kb] download capacity, so now they're getting double," says Jacque Mbandi, from ISP Access Kenya.

"To be honest it will be one or one and a half years before we can take the prices much lower, and make them much more affordable," she adds.

Ms Mbandi claims there already is a price war, a line many people here do not buy. They suspect many ISPs are making a quick buck by not passing on to consumers the full scope of the savings brought about by the new cables.

It appears that for now, the internet will remain a luxury item for most Kenyans, with some businesses, governments, and maybe a few lucky schools hopeful that they can benefit first from East Africa's new connection.


I'm a university student but I'm shocked by how we only rely on books in the library that even sometimes have outdated information. The ISPs are robbing us in broad daylight as our governments stand there doing nothing.
Mugurura Ivan, Kampala, Uganda

I've just spent two weeks in Kampala, Uganda. There is a WIMAX network throughout the city so net is available to all but it kept cutting out and was very slow. I was asked to setup VOIP software (skype) but downloading it timed out. It took more than a minute to load BBC news homepage. Pinging news.bbc.co.uk took 3000ms. In UK it takes around 10ms. Hopefully this cable will make the internet truly usable for ordinary Ugandans!
Peter Tweed, Glasgow, Scotland

SES Astra of Europe has signed a multi-year agreement with Intersat Africa Limited of Nairobi to provide its Astra2Connect Satellite Broadband Services to 10 countries in East & Central Africa. The service, which is to go live in January 2010 on the NSS-12 satellite will be the first of its kind to offer affordable Direct to Home Internet via Satellite to the masses and will overcome perennial challenge of last mile connectivity in these regions. Abdul Bakhrani, Nairobi, Kenya

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