New Submarine Cables Set to Revolutionize West African Internet

Anne Look

Slow downloads and faulty Internet connections could soon become distant memories in West Africa. Two underwater fiber-optic cables stretching from Europe down the western coast of Africa are set to go online in mid-2012. The cables will bring faster, and likely cheaper, broadband Internet to nearly every country in the region.

Patricia Oben runs an international trade and consultancy firm in Douala, Cameroon. She pays nearly $100 each month for the best Internet connection available, which she describes as one step up from "snail speed."  

"I try to send sometimes 60 pages. That might take you anything up to 18, 20 hours, which means that sometimes at night you set it up and you keep your fingers crossed that sometime in the middle of the night it will not just stop working. Sometimes it takes more time to use the Internet than to use DHL. I sent a CD to India. The CD got there before we could finish uploading. Three days. It's incredibly frustrating. A lot of time wasting and money wasting," she said.

Oben says her firm has lost sales because she could not access catalogues or information in time.

But that could all change in just a few months as two extensive submarine fiber-optic cables are to set to bring faster and more reliable broadband Internet to Cameroon and 18 other countries along the Atlantic coast of Africa.

Seven of those countries, including Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, will get broadband access for the first time after years of relying on slower and more expensive satellite links.

Paul Brodsky is a senior analyst at the Washington-based market research firm, Telegeography. Broadband Internet, he says, is actually a vast global "plumbing" of fiber-optic cables. "It is quite literally strands of glass that are no thicker than a human hair through which pulses of light, laser light, get shot through. These very high frequencies of laser light carry the information, the data, between computers in West Africa and Europe, North America and the rest of the world," he said.

The strands of glass are twisted in pairs, encased in protective layers of steel and rubber and then run along the ocean floor from global network hubs in Europe.

Eight West African countries, including Cameroon, are already connected via the older and slower SAT-3 cable and the Nigeria-based MainOne cable, which came online in mid-2010.

Brodsky says the two new cables will each have potential capacities of 5.12 terabits a second - more than the region may likely ever need. "Those benefits should translate to lower pricing for consumers and businesses who need access to the Internet, as well as improved bandwidth," he said.

However, he said telecom monopolies in some countries could keep consumer prices high, at least in the short term, though overlaps in coverage could also foster competition.

National governments and private telecoms, like MTN and France Telecom, are footing the more than $600-million bills for each cable.

The Africa Coast to Europe, or ACE, cable will stretch 17,000 kilometers and land in 20 countries on its way from France to South Africa. The West Africa Cable system, or WACS, will measure 14,000 kilometers and hit 13 countries between London and South Africa.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of terrestrial cables must also be built to connect rural areas and landlocked countries, like Mali and Niger, to the submarine network.   

The economic impact could be huge. The World Bank says every 10-percent increase in broadband connection boosts economic growth by 1.38 percent. The WACS cable alone is expected to increase connectivity by more than 20 percent.

Eastern and Southern Africa are a few years ahead of West Africa. A second underwater cable, SEACOM, went online on that side of the continent in July 2009.

Harvard University professor and telecommunications expert, Calestous Juma, says he has already seen the results in his native Kenya. "We are starting to see the emergence of small enterprises that rely on high-speed Internet or broadband access. For example, small start-up companies in Kenya that are working on animation for Hollywood. Animators can get contracts from Hollywood, do the work in Kenya and ship the product back to Hollywood," he said.

High speed Internet, he says, creates jobs, increases productivity and levels the playing field between businesses in developed countries and those in emerging economies.

"Think of it as the equivalent of roads. When you build a road somewhere, you open up not just new possibilities, but it is a signal of hope to the people that there is actually a future. For the first time, they can think about being able to reach the rest of the world," he said.

Analysts also expect better broadband connectivity to boost the already booming market for wireless 3G devices in Africa.

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