New fibre-optic cable to expand broadband internet in Africa

cables1The opening of a fiber-optic cable providing broadband to millions of people in Southern and Eastern Africa is part of an ambitious plan to expand Internet access and help spur the continent’s economy and its technology industry.

The cable, built by Seacom, a consortium 75 percent controlled by African investors, is the first of about 10 new undersea connections expected to serve Africa before the middle of next year. The expansion will cost about $2.4 billion and will help connect Africa with Europe, Asia and parts of the Middle East at higher speeds and at lower cost.

Right now, Africa has only one submarine fiber-optic cable: the less efficient SAT-3 cable in Western Africa, owned primarily by Telkom, the South African telecom company, and last updated in 2002. Those with no access to that cable are forced to use expensive and slow satellite links.

Alan Mauldin, research director at TeleGeography, a telecommunications market research company, said Africa was the last major area where broadband access was not widespread.

“It’s completing this international Web of undersea cable,” Mr. Mauldin said. “From that point of view, it roots high-end countries like Kenya and Uganda into the Western world better than just satellite capacity.”

A World Bank report released in June said that access to better information and communication technology corresponded with economic growth. The report said that for every 10 percentage points of increase in high-speed Internet access, economic growth rose 1.3 percentage points.

The technology sector should benefit greatly, analysts said. Outsourcing services like call centers will be able to offer more competitive rates because of lower operating costs, and technology companies will be able to better communicate with clients and partners overseas.

Lindsay McDonald, a telecommunications analyst at Frost & Sullivan in South Africa, said that Africans were stymied by the lack of broadband and that better Internet service was an important platform for new businesses.

The Seacom cable will provide Internet service that is about 10 times faster than any existing service in Africa, said David Lerche, a communications analyst at Avior Research in South Africa.

The 17,000-kilometer, or 10,500-mile, cable, which became operational July 23, cost $650 million and links Eastern and Southern Africa with Europe and Asia.

Within the next year, four more submarine fiber systems are expected to be added in East Africa. The Teams cable, expected to be completed in September, will connect Mombasa to the United Arab Emirates, while the East African Submarine Cable System should be in use by the middle of next year.

Mike Bean, a software developer for IDXonline, a small industrial information technology company in South Africa, said his company paid between $2,000 and $5,000 a month for Internet access. He said the Seacom cable would allow his company to teleconference with partners overseas at a much lower price.

“Unless you’re a very wealthy business, you can’t really participate in things like that,” Mr. Bean said.

Demand is high for better communication technology in Africa, analysts say. A report released in May by Delta Partners, an advisory and investment firm for media and technology in the Middle East and Africa, said there was potential for the number of broadband users in Africa to expand to 24 million by 2011 from 2.5 million at present. The estimate was based on the percentage of mobile phone users who could afford technology with Internet access.

In West Africa next year, the Glo-1 Cable will link Nigeria and Ghana to Europe, and the Main One cable will link Nigeria and Ghana to Portugal.

However, it could still be several years before access to less expensive broadband connections becomes widely available to individual consumers, said Étienne Lafougère, the general manager for submarine network activity for Alcatel-Lucent, which has been contracted to build the majority of the submarine cables in Africa, including those for the East Africa Submarine Cable System and Teams. He said access depended on local Internet service providers updating technology and adding cables to the main system to reach more isolated areas.

“We are building the highways, then you have to build roads and secondary roads, and that usually takes more time,” Mr. Lafougère said.

Source: New York Times

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