Thursday, June 18, 2009

A good thing happens: fiber optic connections to the Horn of Africa

We’ve had a bit of a good news deficit lately, though there’s no doubt things could be (much) worse.

So this bit of good news is most welcome. Among other things it’s potentially a significant business opportunity for Minnesota’s large Somali and Ethiopian communities.

Emphases mine. – June 2009

… THE Horn of Africa is one of the last populated bits of the planet without a proper connection to the world wide web. Instead of fibre-optic cable, which provides for cheap phone calls and YouTube-friendly surfing, its 200m or so people have had to rely on satellite links. This has kept international phone calls horribly overpriced and internet access equally extortionate and maddeningly slow.

But last week, in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, a regional communications revolution belatedly got under way when Kenya’s president, Mwai Kibaki, plugged in the first of three fibre-optic submarine cables due to make landfall in Kenya in the next few months. They should speed up the connection of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as bits of Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, to the online world. Laying the cable cost $130m, mostly at the Kenyan government’s expense; Mr Kibaki hailed the event for bringing “digital citizenship” to his countrymen.

The new cable will compete with the other two to be welcomed onshore, perhaps later this year. The hope is that the high bandwidth and fierce competition between the three cables will slash costs and help create new business. With a mass of young English-speakers only an hour or two ahead of Europe’s time zones, east Africa should, with luck, be well-placed to compete with India and Sri Lanka for back-office work for Western companies. Broadband, say its promoters, will transform the lives of millions in countries such as Kenya and Sudan, almost as dramatically as mobile telephones have done—all the more so because of the parlous state of east Africa’s more old-fashioned infrastructure, especially roads and railways.

A few call centres have already got a toehold in the market and expect to expand fast when the cables arrive. Security experts say cybercrime and junk mail may increase too. Still, mobile telephones, not internet caf├ęs, will continue to grow the fastest. The number and quality of handsets should rise. In a couple of years even fairly poor east Africans may be getting knowledge, news and entertainment on robust versions of existing Apple iPhone and Palm Pre models. That, in turn, may prove to be a political as well as economic boon, as information gets shared “horizontally”, among people rather than “vertically” via media outlets run by the political and commercial elites.

Rwanda may emerge as a winner. Its president, Paul Kagame, has long identified the internet as a key to his country’s development, offering concessions to software companies setting up there. But Kenya also wants to cash in. It has abolished sales tax on computers and in last week’s budget ended the sales tax on new mobile phones. It has also let businesses write off bandwidth purchases in the hope of dominating the regional internet market. That may make other countries push companies to drop their prices…

There will be problems of course. Stolen infrastructure, corruption, cybercrime, etc.

Even so. Change you can believe in.

Martha, what do you think?


Unknown said...

Hi John. I hope this will help Rwandans, but bear in mind that 95 percent of the people are farmers. I would suppose that the knowledge economy will be concentrated in a few hands. Many people have cellphones, but, for example, a wife might be reliant on her husband's phone (if he's willing to share it. A matter of control). There has been a push recently to require every schoolchild to wear closed-toe shoes.... Most people are so poor, I won't know who has the versions of iPhone and Pre that are mentioned. love, me

Unknown said...

P.S. There is also the problem of censorship and surveillance. You don't talk about anything of importance over a cellphone in Rwanda, nor do you email anything risky.