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East Africans Await Effects of New Fiber-Optic Cable

Consumers in East Africa are anxiously waiting for a new high-speed fiber-optic cable to finally be switched on for general public use. The cable is expected to usher in a new era of faster, cheaper internet access. As VOA reports from our Nairobi bureau, the new fiber-optic cable and the planned addition of other cables, are anxiously awaited in the last major region in the world to rely on satellite Internet.

For more than a year now potential customers in East Africa have heard of the Seacom cable with a mix of wary caution and hopeful relief. In a country like Kenya, where citizens have been disappointed by undelivered political promises and an undeveloped infrastructure, much of the public took a wait-and-see approach to the reports that high-speed Internet would soon be available.

Although the cable is now "live," the public is still awaiting the broadband revolution to reach their computers. Now that the question of "if" has been answered, the question of "when" is still hanging in the air.

According to a regional spokesman for Seacom, Solomon Mahindi, as of the end of last week only three Internet service providers in Kenya could be confirmed to have finished negotiations with Seacom to get connected to the cable.

Managing Director of Internet Services Chris Senanu of Access Kenya, one of the country's major Internet service providers, said although his company has finalized access to the cable, it will probably be another two weeks or so before the high-speed fiber optic line will be available to its consumers.

"If during the tests we have some major issues, then obviously we are not going to put it right to the public," Senanu said. "But if it goes well, if we have steady links for a week, then we will put it through."

Seacom's Mahindi told VOA that for most service providers it would likely be another two to three months before access to the cable could be passed on to its clients.

When the cable does come online, some of the promised effects will be more immediate than others.

According to Mahindi, the upfront investment needed for each service provider to hook up to the Seacom cable will mean that the estimated 80 to 90 percent reduction in Internet costs the cable offers will not likely be passed on at once to costumers.

"Realistically, these ISPs have to somehow recoup their investment costs and any other infrastructure costs - because it is quite an investment to get in terms of the personnel, in terms of the infrastructure, in terms of the equipment," Mahindi said.

Senanu says that although he expects some of his customers to maintain their current bandwidth and switch to a lower-priced package, he predicts that most will instead choose to keep the same-priced package with the increased speed.

"Some customers are going to prefer to have a price discount, because the economic times here are a bit tough. But most people in Kenya are not buying what they need, they have been buying what they can afford," Senanu adds. "So what you are going to see is that a lot of people maintaining budgets for Internet and just taking up more capacity - two times more, three times more, four times more - in order for them to actually be able to leverage the technology to be able what they need to do."

For many clients, the additional speed will not be readily available soon either. While the undersea cable does offer much greater capacity, local providers will have to build broadband capability within the local loops that bring the service to clients. If a service provider has not upgraded its local infrastructure, its clients will be severely limited in the capacity they can access.

Although depending on the service provider the additional cables will not necessarily increase Internet speed greatly beyond what Seacom can provide, experts say the greater significance of the other cables lies in the extra connection stability they will give the region. Until the other cables are operational, any issue with the Seacom cable will cause problems across all of connected East Africa.

For now, though, East Africans are still waiting to see what changes the new high speed cable will bring to their homes and businesses.

For those who have never known anything other than unreliable, very slow Internet connections at often unaffordable rates, the revolution most of the rest of the world has already undergone is still a bit of a mystery.