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Digital divide

A new era dawns on Africa’s east coast

by Claudia Isabel Rittel
Preparations are currently under way along the east coast of Africa for a high-quality fibre-optic cable internet connection. Countries in the east of the continent so far only have satellite connection to the global data network, but it is slow and expensive. This will soon change, thanks to almost 32,000 kilometres of fibre-optic cable.

Fibre-optic cables are the data highways of the digital era. They are only a few centimetres thick, but span extremely long distances. There are tens of thousands of kilometres of cable on the seabed of the world’s oceans, connecting Europe, Asia, Australia and North and South America. There is also a cable running along Africa’s west coast. However, until now, the east of Africa has been left out. Internet connection has only been possible via satellite.

However, there are a number of disadvantages facing people who cannot hook up to the main arteries of international data flows. Satellite connections are more expensive and slower, because data must cover much longer distances. There are often problems with connection, and satellite links even have to be shut down during severe storms. As a result, the opportunities that the internet offers remain considerably underutilised in eastern Africa.

“Currently, no e-commerce exists here at all,” says Hanif Abdulrasul. He has been running an advertising agency in Tanzania’s coastal town Dar es Salaam for 18 years. He expects many changes due to fibre-optic cable internet connection. “At the moment, we are unable to send printing orders through the web,” he says, adding that websites are currently only used as references. “Once we have a greater bandwidth, we will be able to take online orders and receive printing jobs over the internet.” He is certain that new companies will be formed, making use of the internet. Finally, prices should hopefully soon fall.

The costs are currently huge for internet access. Abdulrasul says it is $ 500 per month for a bandwidth of 128 kilobytes per second. “This is about the same as a very good DSL connection in Germany,” says Carsten Seth from the German web agency Netzlaboranten. According to Seth, companies pay about € 50 for similar services in Germany, albeit at much higher speed. In the future, three ocean cables will provide a faster, cheaper and more reliable connection in Tanzania. By connecting computers in East Africa to the global data highways they are expected to overcome the digital divide.

Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki launched the TEAMS cable (The East African Marine Systems cable) in mid-June. This cable is nearly 5,000 kilometres long and will connect Kenya’s port of Mombasa with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and then throughout the world. It was initiated by the UAE and Kenya’s government. A number of private companies that need fast data connections are also involved.

The two other cables will ensure data transfer in the other direction. The East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy) is planned to go from South Africa along the east coast past the Horn of Africa through the Red Sea to Sudan. The original plan was drafted as long ago as 2003 in cooperation with various development banks and African telecommunications providers. However, implementation dragged on for so long that the Kenyan government began its own project in 2006 with TEAMS.

The three cables all meet in Kenya. Another cable has already been laid between South Africa and Mozambique. There are mainly private American investors behind its operator Seacom. The connection is currently undergoing testing and it should be ready to deliver top-quality images of the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa around the globe.

All of the connections go to various sites on shore. From there, it is a matter of linking them to the national networks and connecting landlocked countries. Preparations have already been made. In Zambia, a landlocked neighbour of Tanzania, fibre-optic cables have already been laid between various towns, and connection with six bordering countries planned.

It is too early to predict the extent to which the general population will benefit from these large-scale projects. The Kenyan government is planning to set up digital villages, which combine technical service and opportunities for continuing education. The private sector is to take charge, and the government is supporting it with three-year loans. The government has created the Kenya ICT Board which will also look after it, as it is expecting much from the leap into fast internet.

The authorities hope, above all, that the ocean cable will bring opportunities for economic development, in call centres, for example, as demonstrated by many other English-speaking low-wage countries.

There is already a call centre in Kenya, Kencall. However, the technical conditions are much worse than those of Kencall’s Indian competitors, for example. Nicolas Nesbitt, president of Kencall, says that, in Kenya, almost $17,000 in internet fees per month would have to be paid to employ 25 staff. He says that other countries which are involved in the call centre business pay only between $600 and $1,000 for the same services. He is convinced that the call centre business will expand considerably once the high-quality connections are established, and that many jobs will be created.

Claudia Isabel Rittel