East Africa has fiber-optic cable — now what?

In the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, traditional dancers gyrated to tunes, as is common in all functions that involve the president. It was a big day for East Africa because The East Africa Marine System (TEAMS) was home.In the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, traditional dancers gyrated to tunes, as is common in all functions that involve the president. It was a big day for East Africa because The East Africa Marine System (TEAMS) was home.After a year of hype and threats by the notorious Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, the ship laying the cable docked at the landing station earlier this week, escorted by a French navy ship.

The region has been waiting for TEAMS to light up because it has been billed as the most affordable telecommunications option, given the combination of government and private sector ownership. Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Northern Tanzania and Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have been busy finalizing their national fiber backbone to get ready for the cable’s arrival.

In west Africa, there hasn’t been much dancing or celebration even though the Africa Development Bank has invested US$240 million for a 7,000-kilometer fiber-optic cable from Portugal through Ghana to Nigeria. The investment by ADB will bolster the South Atlantic 3/ West African Submarine cable, which connects western and southern Africa countries.

The lack of celebration in West Africa may be rooted in the fact that SAT 3 has been operational since 2002. It has been underutilized, the cost of connectivity remains high and the region is still dependent on satellite.

It was therefore understandable that west Africa was not as excited as east Africa. The people in the region have been there and have had their hopes dashed.

The infrastructure investments and developments in the continent therefore raise several questions: Does the problem lie in infrastructure? Content? Policy? Access and pricing?

One major expectation is that the cost of connectivity in east Africa will decline. Businesses have been promised a drop from US$2,500 per megabyte to $400 per megabyte. But how will the cost come down when the market is dominated by the private sector?

“Most of the regional telecom infrastructure initiatives are dictated by commercial agreements between private telecom suppliers; the governments are always caught in the middle between the private sector motive of increasing shareholder value and reducing price for user[s],” said John Walubengo, acting dean of ICT at the Kenya Multimedia University.

The most complicated part is that the big telcos such as Kenya Data Networks, Access Kenya, Jamii Telecom, Safaricom and Telkom Kenya are also the major owners of TEAMS, while the rival SEACOM cable project is wholly private. No company has come up with ways to bring prices down, or said what will happen to those with business contracts for the older technology.

“Cables alone will not bring prices down. Cables plus competition will bring prices down. In instances where cables are controlled by the incumbent operators, prices will be slow to come down,” said Steve Song, telecommunications fellow at Shuttleworth Foundation.

The investors have maintained that the prices will come down, but have not talked about how open their business models would be to people who have not invested but would like to lease the infrastructure.

“The companies that bought shares in TEAMS have invested heavily and will need to recoup those costs before any significant cost savings can be realized by the consumer,” said Mbugua Njihia, CEO of Symbiotic Media, one of the companies that has invested in online products for the youth.

The case of SAT 3 has shown that for the cable to have any meaningful effect on the common person, there must be awareness and open access. The people in urban areas will go online to access e-mail, but rural folk with no prior Internet experience will have to find a relevant reason to go online.

“A lot of people (business people and the regular people) still don’t see the real value that connectivity brings, especially concerning access to information,” said Njihia. “The government and ICT board should shift focus to awareness, otherwise people will have no reason to use the digital villages.”

“No content, no motive to go online, but 80 percent of Kenyans live upcountry,” said Walubengo. “The rural community will only get online once government services (health, agriculture, education, registrations) get online.”

The debate about online content has been going on in the region for some time, and the World Bank has approved content grants that are yet to be disbursed. Content localization has also been an issue, with some people arguing that the sort of content that would add value to the rural community is different from that which would be valuable to an urban user.

“There is no use in having agricultural extension service videos and lessons in English to a group of farmers who do not understand English and would not make sense of it. Currently I don’t think there is sufficient content to serve to the more rural populations that would add value to their lives,” added Njihia.

Bandwidth may be the most popular reason why Africa lags behind as an investment destination, but there are other factors such as legislation, politics and corruption.

“Besides bandwidth, we have to show the world that Africa is the place to invest by demystifying stereotypes and improving governance structures, [and] embracing democracy and issues relating to competitiveness,” said Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication.

“Africa has to shorten the red tape, make it easy to establish a business, operate according to rule of law and deal with corruption,” said Song.

The east Africa community will face the ultimate litmus test when dealing with costs among countries and policy harmonization. For instance, one of the challenges facing SAT 3 is a discriminatory tendency among regional operators, which charge more in one country compared to others even when the infrastructure is the same.

Though Ndemo insists that the region is working on policy harmonization to ensure nondiscriminatory provision of services, the EAC is not known for its speed in debating and passing policy documents.

Whether the issues are resolved or not, it is clear that access, content, reach and availability, quality of services and ICT literacy are just as important as the bandwidth cost.

An Africa based entrepreneur in the pursuit of opportunities without regard to resources currently controlled striving to build services that have real-world value for my beloved continent and beyond while having fun along the way.

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