Can new underwater cables finally connect Africa?


Did you know that only 5% of people living in Africa have Internet access? Two big reasons: accessibility and affordability. Right now, the entire eastern coast of Africa only has satellite Internet, which means it's way too pricey and slow for most people. Last week, the BBC reported that three separate efforts are underway to lay submarine cables. The front runner in this effort is Seacom, a private company that has already dug 13,700km of cables into the sea beds from Egypt to South Africa to France. It's planning a big launch in July, and the big impetus is the World Cup, slated to take place in South Africa in 2010--Seacom will likely be the main deliverer of soccer goodness from Capetown to the rest of the globe.

But what does this really mean? When the Sat3 cable system was laid down under the sea on the western coast of the continent in 2001, the vast majority of the population were still disconnected because it was way too expensive. "The gatekeepers to the cable were government-run, monopoly telecom providers," says Ashwin Mathew, a phD student who studies infrastructure and submarine cables at Berkeley's School of Information. "It's not just about introducing cable; who owns and has access to it will be a determining factor to how useful it is." Other factors include structures of investments and negotiating access to the cables for countries that aren't on the coast.

Also note that the 5% who do have Internet access aren't exactly tab-surfing or scanning RSS feeds like we are. Connections are patchy, electric outages are frequent, and shoddy transportation often bars people from getting to the nearest Internet cafe. "Internet users really use the hell out of the existing low bandwidth connections," says Jenna Burrell, who is Mathew's professor and researches connectivity in Africa. She adds: "Cafe owners in Ghana who were paying ISPs were really pinched between the high cost of the network connection and the limited amount of money their customer base was able to pay for the service."

Aside from Seacom, the East African Marine Cable System (Eassy) and The East African Marine System (Teams) are also working on submarine cable systems in the region. Neither of these are private projects, though, which could mean they might meet the same fate as the west coast's Sat3.

Still, locals are excited about it. "Costs for telephony and internet could drop to a fifth of what they are now," Kui Kinyanjui, a reporter at Kenya's Business Daily, tells me over email. "East Africa is one of the last frontiers in the world that has not yet linked up to the global fiber optic network."

About Lisa Katayama

I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.
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