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East Africa - broadband marches on

Following the recent prolific deployment of cabling systems in the seas around East Africa, two highly-respected organisations, the Christian Science Monitor and the BBC, have been bringing their customers up-to-date. Michael Schwartz reviews the articles.

“In East Africa, high hopes for a broadband revolution” forms the headline of a Christian Science Monitor (CSM) article on the recent proliferation of cabling systems in the region. CSM’s Matthew Shaer appears to pin his hopes on SEACOM’s project, the US$600 million, 10,600 mile-cable starting in South Africa, and taking in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Kenya as it makes its way to London, Marseilles and Mumbai.

The last region of the world without a broadband communication system has received it: “History has been made” were the words of Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete in an opening speech. There can be no doubt that a tremendous leap forward has been made as local residents no longer have to be restricted to satellite and dial-up. SEACOM itself stressed the financial benefits to local industry and commerce.

Matthew Shaer goes on to mention Forrester Research’s estimate that 2.2 billion people will be online in the next few years - Africa and the Middle East are likely to account for a large portion of that growth. It is clear that the East African broadband cables are playing one of the most significant parts in telecoms development ever.

Of course, nothing happens overnight - even in the rapidly changing world of telecoms. CNN was told by analyst James Hodge that there will be a trickle-down effect: first the existing users of the Internet gaining the benefits of the cabling, and ultimately the rural areas. This is a familiar story - one hopes that rural telecoms will this time blossom more speedily and more profusely than in previous areas.

Cable deployment across AfricaThe BBC, online, attributes the price to SEACOM as US$650 million and sees major educational benefits. It also mentions the month-long delay in opening the cable because of pirate activity off Somalia.

Five local institutions are described by the BBC as utilising the new cabling: national electricity company Tanesco, telco TTCL, Tanzania Railways and the Universities of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma.

And then we come, as always, to the bottom line. The BBC site states: “To the disappointment of many consumers...some ISPs are not planning to lower the cost of the Internet, but instead will offer increased bandwidth. But businesses, which have been paying around US$3,000 a month for 1Mb/s through a satellite link, will now pay considerably less - about US$600 a month.

The Kenyan government has been laying a network of cables to all of the country's major towns and says the fibre-optic links will also enable schools nationwide to link into high quality educational resources.

And yet for the BBC’s correspondent the doubts remain: “it is not clear whether the Internet revolution will reach the villages, many of which still struggle to access reliable electricity.” This is where the BBC and CSM share the same concern: priority to government over industry over commerce over individuals over rural, the latter a long way behind.

Of course, there is always someone locally who is not satisfied. The BBC uncovered a Kenyan Internet user who gave us the benefit of his worldly-wise experience: “It's not good. It's hanging and keeps wasting time and frustrating me.”

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