East Africa: Sea Cable Ushers in New Internet Era
23 July 2009
Nairobi — The first undersea fibre optic cable went live in five African countries simultaneously on Thursday, marking the beginning of an era of faster and cheaper internet connections.
A privately-funded consortium, Seacom, commissioned its Sh59 billion ($760m) undersea cable in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Uganda and South Africa with Rwanda set to be linked up in the next two weeks.This effectively means that Kenya is now part of the global information superhighway and will be able to compete on a more level platform with more established economies.The commissioning in Mombasa, was marked with a live telecast by Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete in Dar es Salaam, who was linked with journalists in Kampala, Maputo, Johannesburg, London and Marseille.
"The arrival of this cable signals the beginning of a new era in the telecommunications sector," said Mr Kikwete. "History has been made." Eastern Africa has been the only region in the world not connected through an undersea fibre optic cable and has had to rely on the more expensive satellites whose charges have been as high as Sh540,000 ($7,000) per megabyte. "Today is the day technology has arrived in Africa," said Cisco Systems vice-president Le Roux, whose firm provided the technology for the cable.Seacom announced that it would offer wholesale prices in the range of Sh7,700 ($100) per megabyte, with even more subsidised costs of between Sh770 and Sh1,925 ($10-$25) to schools, research and health institutions.
"Broadband will change the connectivity and economy of Africa," said Seacom president Brian Herlihy in a live feed from the Tanzanian capital. Five yet-to-be-named internet companies were the first to access the 6,500 kilometre-cable and will now connect their equipment to the marine cable as they prepare to link offices and homes. However, the consortium warned the public that they will have to wait a little longer for cheaper Internet as industry players will first want to recoup their investments. "What we are providing is a highway and it will be up to the telcos and internet service providers to decide the final cost," said Mr Haskell Ward, Seacom's senior vice-president in charge of government relations. He spoke during the launch at the Swahili Cultural Centre where the Mombasa landing station is based.
The benefits are expected to be immense with the cable expected to provide super-fast internet connections and vastly expanded bandwidth capacity. "No project can compete with this for the importance it holds for Kenya and for Africa," said Mr Ward.The forthcoming Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) Forum to be led by the US Secretary of State, Mrs Hillary Clinton, is a prime example of what the cable can do. The talks are set to be streamed live to the five countries and will also feature what has until now been the stuff of movies. Talks are on with medical service provider AAR to have a clinic at the venue that would be virtually manned by staff located at a different venue; a variant of telemedicine. E-commerce and e-learning will also be greatly enhanced and it is with this in mind that Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta allocated money to mobile ICT laboratories in all constituencies. Real time event streaming, high resolution and internet television and better voice, data and video services will also be among the more visible benefits.
Business Process Outsourcing firms are expected to be among the big winners as they will be able to compete on a more equal platform with their counterparts in Asian countries such as the Philippines and India. However, analysts say it will be a challenge for Kenya to manage the huge broadband capacity given the shortage of skills and local content. Seacom's entire system will be operated and controlled through Seacom's network operations centre in Pune, India. Three other marine cables are also competing to serve the local market. They are the government-backed TEAMs (The East African Marine System), the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) and Lion. TEAMS landed in Mombasa early last month and is currently undergoing testing while the other two are expected to be operational by mid-2010.
Seacom said it would offer uniform pricing for its bandwidth across the region. Besides Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique, Seacom will also connect Madagascar, Ethiopia and Egypt. Tanzania has already connected most government buildings to the cable. "E-government, e-commerce, e-medicine, e-anything is now very possible," said Mr Kikwete. Seacom is a privately-funded venture in which Kenya's Industrial Promotion Services has a 26.25 per cent stake, Venfin Limited (25 per cent), South Africa's Shanduka Group (12.5 per cent) and Convergence Partners (12.5 per cent) of the cable. The remaining 23.75 per cent is held by New York-based international development group, Herakles Capital.