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Kenya cable ushers in broadband era

23 July 09 13:29 GMT

The first of four undersea cables bringing high-speed internet to eastern Africa has gone live. The BBC's Anne Waithera, in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, finds a nation impatient to join the broadband revolution.

In a busy cyber cafe in Nairobi dozens of people, mostly young, are hunched over computers surfing the net.

I try to strike up a conversation with one of them but he will not even look my way. Without looking up from the monitor he signals with his hand that I should wait until he is done.

This is perfectly understandable. It costs slightly less than $1 to surf for about an hour in a cyber-cafe in Nairobi and internet connection speeds are very slow.

But he is ready to talk after he pays his bill.

"It's not good. It's hanging and keeps wasting time and frustrating me," he says.

Another frustrated user complains: "I've spent more than 15 minutes instead of 10."

But things are about to change for these internet users.

The Seacom undersea fibre-optic cable goes live on Thursday, promising changes that will be felt right across eastern and southern Africa.

See map of Africa's new fibre-optic cables

The switch will take place simultaneously in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Maputo in Mozambique and Mtunzini in South Africa.

The switchover from relying mainly on satellites to the submarine cable is expected to massively increase connection speeds.

One of the biggest setbacks of satellite connections is that a change in weather almost always leads to unstable connectivity.

It is hoped that cyber-cafe owners will transfer the benefits to their customers, as they will be making a huge savings on international links.

"When the fibre-optic cable goes live this means the speeds will be fantastic, we'll have a higher turnover of clients and that translates to increased income," says Fred, a cyber-cafe manager.

These benefits will also be felt by millions of phone users, who will enjoy cheaper international connections and quicker voice transfers.

"The fibre-optic connection enables faster voice transfer unlike satellite, which has an average response time of 650 milliseconds, thus introducing some delays in our voice communication," says Mahmoud Noor, Seacom's cable-station manager in Mombasa.

Mr Noor says the new service will reduce this to an average of 90 milliseconds for calls between Europe and eastern Africa, and an even faster response of less than six milliseconds between Dar es Salaam and Mombasa.

Potential squandered?

In Kenya, various sectors of the economy are expecting a major boost following the launch of the undersea cable, and investors are anxious about it.

"At the Nairobi stock exchange there is a possibility that things like day-trading will be introduced, where you make an order and in two minutes you will know if it has been sold or not," says Idd Salim of the Symbiotic Media Consortium, a software firm in Nairobi.

"That is not possible right now because you have to make an order today then wait for two or three days for it to clear."

Mr Salim says that Africa's potential is being hindered by the absence of fast internet connectivity and this technological advance will open new avenues.

"For instance computer programmers cannot start a video service or a powerful website because the connection is slow," he says.

"You'll see a lot of YouTube and Facebook stuff now made for Africa by Africans.

"Look at things like medicine - people will be able to be diagnosed from their homes because now we can have virtual hospitals."

The use of the undersea cable is expected to be immediate, save for some ISPs (Internet Service Providers) who may want to test it within their networks for a few days first.

Last month the Teams fibre-optic cable was launched in the coastal city of Mombasa, but it has yet to go live.

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