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New Underwater Cable Expected to Boost  African Development

Last week brought good news to Internet users in East and Southern Africa: a new optic fiber cable came on line connecting South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique not only to each other, but also to Europe and India. Plans are underway to include Rwanda and Ethiopia and eventually countries in the interior of the continent.

The company behind the cable, Seacom, says it should make connectivity faster, cheaper and more reliable.

The optical fiber network can handle all kinds of traffic, according to company officials, including video, data and voice, which they say should benefit the continent’s millions of cell phone users.

Calls from the United States to Africa used to be routed through London, Brussels or Frankfort and then by satellite to Africa. Going through satellite can create latency, or lag time, that can result in an echo, says Brian Herlihy, the founder and CEO of Seacom.But today, he says, thanks to the new fiber optic network, the call will go from the United States to London and then to Kenya, by-passing the satellite altogether, thus cutting out the lag time and improving sound quality.

South-South cooperation

The new system could help boost trade and other ties with African countries and with other parts of the developing world, say Seacom officials.

Developing countries are a growing presence on the World Wide Web, says Herlihy. “While about 90 percent of our traffic is [now] going to London and 10 percent to India, we predict in the next five years India could hit 30 percent of our traffic.”

Drop in price

Paul Mountford is the president of Emerging Markets at Cisco Systems, which partnered with Seacom in developing the optic fiber system.

With Seacom, he says, Africans should not only see a drop in the price of Internet access, but he says, the dawn of a new era, where consumers, business owners and government use technology to collaborate and transform the way they communicate. He foresees, for example, the possiblity of effective telemedicine, with the cable allowing doctors in rural and urban areas to exchange information through videoconferencing.

A little over five percent of all Africans use the internet, one of the world's lowest penetration rates. The Seacom cable will deliver more capacity, resulting in affordable and better quality access to the world wide web. Analysis shows that using the fiber optic network is 95 percent cheaper than using satellites.

“The reason we know the effect of the faster, reliable connectivity is going to change Africa is that we've seen the positive change all around the world. For years, we've been sharing best practices with governments and businesses around the globe -- advising them on everything from regulatory issues to demonstrating the power of the Internet. "

“One of the things we do,” he continues, “is discuss pro-competitive regulatory pricing and regulatory standards to make sure the government sets up an environment where, when these commercial opportunities like Seacom come around, the population has the ability to take advantage of it in a fair way.”

He says there’s now healthy competition to previously state-owned telecommunications providers, which once held a monopoly on all telecommunications, including the telephone and the Internet.

Development experts say Seacom should help meet the demand of cell phone customers for the 2010 World Cup, which will be held in Johannesburg.

Something for Everyone

Herlihy says Internet usage is likely to expand with the development of new products that benefit from the improved bandwidth, such as netbooks that cost less than $100 and video cameras the size of a small phone that offer high-definition viewing.

Businesses will also benefit. “If you are a bank in East Africa,” Mountford says, "you can access your customers through hardware like netbooks or smart phones and create video content in every local language. You will be able to do more with your customers than just with phone itself.”

“That’s because you can use visual tools to communicate with your customer and language is no longer a barrier and you can edit [the video message] as need be,” he says.

Mountford says the reliable bandwidth provided by Seacom will make video the "clear driver" for increasing internet usage, from facilitating telemedicine to viewing the World Cup on high-definition television.

SEACOM is only one of nearly a dozen fiber optic networks in operation, or being planned for Africa.Another, called the East African Marine Systems (TEAMS) connects Kenya to the United Arab Republic. The Eastern African Submarine Cable System (EASSy), is expected to come on line next year and, like Seacom, serve eastern and southern Africa. But Seacom, observers note, is the first to be fully funded by private investors and owned almost entirely by Africans.