New cable to connect eastern Africa

NEPAD pushes for cheaper, faster telecommunications
From Africa Renewal: 
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A seller of melons using her mobile phone at a fruit and vegetable market in Nairobi, Kenya A seller of melons using her mobile phone at a fruit and vegetable market in Nairobi, Kenya: The use of wireless technology is expanding rapidly in Africa, but remains unreliable and expensive.
Photograph: Associated Press / Khalil Senosi

Late one night, Jean Leonard Karuranga heard a commotion outside his house in Kigali, Rwanda. There was a stampede, loud voices and then a sharp cry. Too scared to venture outside alone, Mr. Karuranga used his mobile phone to call a local security group that protects the neighbourhood from marauding gangsters looking to rob people.

“The defence force found my cousin, who was coming from another city to visit me, bleeding right outside my gate. Thugs had stabbed and robbed him,” he said. “We rushed him to the hospital just in time. If I didn’t have a cell phone, we would be talking of something else. He was saved by the mobile phone.”

Mr. Karuranga is one of an estimated 120 million Africans using phones, up from 2 million in 1998. Mobile phones, says a report by the London Business School, account for most of this increase. The report, Africa: The Impact of Mobile Phones, notes that over the last five years Africa has seen a faster growth in cell phone subscriptions than any other region in the world.

That growth in telecommunications use is set to accelerate further. Twenty-three coastal and landlocked countries in East and Southern Africa have now finalized plans to lay an undersea cable that could make phone and Internet use more affordable. The project falls within the framework of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), said Edmund Katiti, an expert with the e-Africa Commission. The commission oversees telecommunications activities for NEPAD and seeks to promote development of a continental communications network.

Integrating Africa

“The submarine cable will achieve NEPAD’s goal to integrate African countries by lowering communications costs through a network owned and operated predominantly by African entities,” Mr. Katiti told Africa Renewal. “Africa is wasting over a billion dollars a year in transfer fees.” If someone in Mozambique makes a call to Angola, he noted, the connection may need to pass through the UK and France before returning to Africa, adding greatly to the cost.

From Kenya, it is cheaper to call someone in the UK than in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, observes Kai Wulff, the managing director of Kenya Data Network, a private company. A comprehensive cable network, he adds, would cut the cost of communicating across Africa by about 50 per cent.

The western coast of Africa, from Morocco to South Africa, already has a cable that was built five years ago. Similarly, a cable connects the entire North African coast with the Red Sea. This new system on the eastern coast of Africa, Mr. Katiti said, would provide the last link to encircle Africa with cable networks.

Countries on Africa’s eastern coast must now rely on expensive satellite services to transmit voices or data. Putting up a satellite costs about $5,000 per megabyte of capacity, compared to only $500 per megabyte for laying a fibre-optic cable. Made of glass fibres and using light pulses to carry messages, such cables have a higher bandwidth than satellite transmissions and can carry more calls at once and deliver faster connections.

Currently, Mr. Katiti explained, “People go to an Internet cafe with a newspaper. They read one article while the page is loading, waiting for the next page to open. But with this new technology, they click and the page is there.”

The cable is being laid underwater for security reasons, since it will be less vulnerable to theft or damage than if it were laid aboveground. Known as the East African Submarine Cable System, or EASSy, it will run for 9,900 kilometres, between Durban in South Africa and Port Sudan in Sudan. Its estimated cost is $300 mn.

Countries on the coastline will tap directly into the cable and also serve as transmission points for landlocked countries. Most countries already have telecommunications networks, but they may need to expand their capacities, notes Issa Semtawa, the communications manager for the Tanzania Telecommunications Company. “The cable will provide large capacity to our countries,” Mr. Semtawa stressed. “It is up to us to get ready to make full use of this capacity.”

‘Things have to change’

Construction of the cable was stalled for almost four years. But at a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, in July 2006, 29 private and state-run entities agreed to a plan to build the $300 mn cable and prepare it for commercial service by early 2008. Officials say they needed time to build consensus on the best way of financing the project, to ensure that the technology will be delivered at the cheapest cost to consumers.

“We are trying to avert a situation where the project becomes an entity registered and owned elsewhere,” commented Sammy Kirui, chairman of the EASSy secretariat. The stakeholders in the project will jointly fund it, but all licenced telecommunications operators will be able to buy its services at the same price as investors, thereby fostering competition.

Experts agree that if not used correctly, the new cable could become a missed opportunity. Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications, notes that the cable in West Africa has not provided the expected reduction in user costs because the system is largely controlled by state-owned monopolies that do not allow free competition, which would bring prices down.

According to NEPAD’s Mr. Katiti, the EASSy project offers hope that the “digital divide” currently afflicting Africa may one day be bridged. The current situation, he said, reflects a “paradox where the poorest continent pays the highest fees for communicating, so people keep getting poorer. With the East African submarine cable and a great policy framework for the region, we are saying: ‘We can’t tolerate this anymore. Things have to change’.”

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