Feature Story

Broadband To Bring Big Changes to Africa

by null

October 5, 2009

Farmers using the Internet to connect directly with buyers? Doctors operating on patients remotely via telemedicine? This may sound like Silicon Valley, but it could soon be a reality in Africa, thanks to an undersea cable linking the continent to the rest of the world.

The 1.28 Terabyte-per-second submarine fiber optic cable reached the shores of Tanzania from India in July, providing the first high-speed connection between Africa and networks worldwide.

Deployed by operator SEACOM with help from Cisco -- which also helped launch the service by building a voice, data and video platform to stream live video over IP to five launch locations -- it is of profound significance to Internet connectivity in Africa.

Besides directly contributing to the availability of bandwidth across the continent, it will provide much-needed backhaul capacity for complementary access technologies such as 3rd Generation (3G) mobile and Very Small Aperture Terminal satellite currently in use.

Among those leading the initiative is the chairman of the board of directors of SEACOM Tanzania, George Kahama, popularly known as 'Sir George.'

A major figure in the Tanzanian government between 1957 and 2005, Sir George held posts that included cabinet minister, ambassador and CEO of Public Commercial/Industrial Corporations. He is one of the main interlocutors between the cable provider and the public sector.

With the cable now entering its second phase of deployment, News@Cisco spoke to him about the project and its value for Africa.

What difference will the undersea cable project make?

Sir George Kahama: It is going to make a lot of difference. Before July, Africa was not connected by fiber to the global community, and at the present time connections are still mainly satellite-based, which is slow, unreliable and costly.

With the cable connection it will be cheaper and quicker. You have to remember that our continent, Africa, is huge and in many areas there is no electricity, infrastructure is poor. As we progress into the hinterland, more people will have access to services.

"With new Web applications and uses being discovered daily, the potential economic benefits of affordable bandwidth are endless."

— Sir George Kahama, Chairman of the board of directors, SEACOM Tanzania

By introducing the SEACOM fiber connection we are helping to encourage people to start investing in backhaul, but we will still have a combination of fiber, wireless and other types of access for some time to come.

What is the current state of deployment and rate of penetration of broadband in Tanzania?

Sir George Kahama: We only have 31,000 Internet connections and those are mostly dial-up. Penetration is less than one percent of the population.

But you have to remember that we had cities in 2002 that were only just beginning to roll out mobile phone systems and now there are around eight million subscribers in Tanzania.

By next year, the main towns across the whole country will have backhaul capability and we will be offering services to eight neighboring landlocked countries, so Tanzania will become something of a hub.

The government is supporting this very much. Our parliament recently passed a bill to establish a universal access fund in Tanzania.

In which geographical areas do you think broadband could have the greatest impact?

Sir George Kahama: From the outset of the project, SEACOM realized the importance of connecting inland countries to the international network.

Many countries set out to deploy massive terrestrial networks in anticipation of the arrival of real and affordable international bandwidth connectivity.

With more and more countries getting connected to the rest of the world via the SEACOM system, it is only a matter of time before we see the direct socio-economic benefits this will have on the entire region.

The sphere of influence of the cable stretches from South Africa up to the Emirates, across to Mumbai and onward to Europe to connect with the rest of the world. Unlike other services, this is one that nobody doubts the value of.

And which sectors?

Sir George Kahama: It will help areas such as e-government and research. We are now negotiating to create a network connecting 60-plus research establishments across East Africa.

With new Web applications and uses being discovered daily, the potential economic benefits of affordable bandwidth are endless.

SEACOM often hears stories about the impact of inexpensive bandwidth to global Internet content in Europe, North America or Asia; however, we have also heard many stories of Africans producing content that will vastly benefit the world. 

Just recently, SEACOM met with a research group that is gathering data from traditional healers on homeopathic medicines. We were amazed to learn of the information being gathered and the ability to add to medical research throughout the world.

With broadband, Tanzanian farmers will be able to access markets for their products locally and internationally directly through the Internet rather than using middlemen and cooperatives, which is the current practice and is inefficient.

Similarly, at present in Tanzania patients with major ailments such as heart conditions have been forced to seek treatment abroad.

However, we are now seeing health institutions such as The Regency Hospital in Dar es Salaam exploring the possibility of acquiring SEACOM capacity and performing these medical procedures in real time through telemedicine, in conjunction with major hospitals in India.

SEACOM's partnership with southern African research and education networks, through the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET), is an example of how SEACOM plans to facilitate faster development by providing subsidized international bandwidth.

Our commitment to supporting research and education networks will provide 40 universities, education and research institutions in southern Africa with 50 times more bandwidth at the same price currently being paid annually.

The bandwidth provided equals that currently available to the entire southern African population.

After six years, the institutions will own the capacity for the remaining life of the cable, resulting in substantial annual savings whilst enabling institutions to develop and increase their international research collaborations and distance learning programs.

SEACOM is working to replicate this program in East Africa. In Tanzania, we have donated STM-1 capacity to the University of Dar Es Salaam, and are negotiating with the Tanzania Education and Research Network (TERNET) to provide capacity to its 60-plus research and educational institutes at a discounted rate.

What other measures are needed across Africa to make broadband a reality?

Sir George Kahama: An open and liberal approach to telecommunications is essential and governments hold the key to allowing businesses to exploit IT-linked opportunities to accelerate broadband penetration.

There is also the catalyst effect that needs to be considered. Undersea cables will justify the investment in national fiber, fiber to the home, new wireless networks, data centers, call centers and business process outsourcing.

With connectivity now available, it is up to governments and Internet service providers to pass on the cost savings and capacity to their customers.