High speed internet access in Africa takes off

French giant, France Telecom and a consortium of 20 members of the telecommunications industry, signed an agreement to build an underwater cable between Europe and South Africa. The fiber optic cable is expected to provide broadband internet access to 19 African countries by 2012.

West Africa will be plugged into a 17 000 km fiber optic cable that is to link 23 countries from France to South Africa in 2012. Though the construction approval has been signed and the cable built, “deep-sea exploration for implantation in (both) unprotected and authorized zones will take a year and a half,” says Didier Duriez, Director of International and Backbone Network, with France Telecom-Orange. “The cable laying will last one year after which it will be connected to the already

existing cable system,” he adds.

The ACE system (Africa Coast to Europe) will be the first under-water cable to serve 23 African and European countries. Gambia, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sao Tome and Principe and Sierra Leone are among the first to be connected to this under-water cable. Other countries include South Africa, Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Spain, France, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Portugal, Senegal. Landlocked Mali and Niger will be connected via a terrestrial cable.

Didier Duriez admits that although this might “not directly change the lives of low income earners”, African operators will be able to offer their services at a “lower cost.”

Lower prices expected

The $700 million (587 million euros) investment, out of which France Telecom-Orange is to shoulder 250 million, will eventually see the lowering of broadband access rates. “The cost depends mainly on domestic connectivity. The international segment accounts for only 20-25%. In this area, however, prices will certainly be lowered: the lowering of the unit cost will eventually be set at 50% in the least,” said Didier Duriez.

Equatorial Guinea is the only country where the state itself took part in the investment program. Funding in the other countries is indirect as most governments own substantial shares in telecommunications companies.

While the cable could see a throughput of up to 5 terabytes, “the quality will depend on the country’s infrastructure” says Didier Duriez. And for the cable to function at its best, wireless infrastructure must be developed.

This comes off from March 22 report which has the European Union approving a broadband network to link Europe and Africa together.

Funding for the first phase of an initiative to connect African research centres and link them to an existing European network has been approved by the European Commission. The approval follows a report that identified sufficient IT infrastructure in Africa to support the AfricaConnect Initiative, which aims to improve research collaborations and access to information.  The report, released last month (March 22), is based on a one-year Feasibility Study for African-European Research and Education Network Interconnection (FEAST), funded by the European Commission and carried out by the Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden.   Most national research and education networks (NRENs) in Africa are now near, or will soon be near, one of several recently-landed undersea fibre optic cables, the report said.   This may enable them to join GÉANT, an existing pan-European research and

education network.   Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a technology research company in South Africa, said that the new undersea cables bring unprecedented opportunity as well as challenges to the continent’s research community.

“At an academic level there is tremendous interest in collaboration and cooperation, and the progress made in South Africa … in connecting up universities while bypassing the one-time monopoly provider has been an object lesson in what is possible,” said Goldstuck.

The first to benefit from the new collaborations are likely to be NRENs already connected to the emerging regional network – UbuntuNet, based in Malawi. To reinforce this network and encourage collaboration on a larger scale, UbuntuNet should join AfricaConnect Initiative, as partners or subcontractors, together with European NRENs, the report said.

But Martin Belcher, director of programmes at the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, Sweden, warned that “getting cables ashore is one thing, increased connectivity to an individual in a research project something else”.

The terrestrial connections necessary to take advantage of the new undersea cables are still “way behind” in many African countries and this could reduce the availability of bandwidth for research and collaboration, agreed Spiwe Chireka, an information and communication technologies analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a global business research and consulting firm. She expects that coastal regions will benefit from the new cables sooner than inland regions.

The FEAST report also found that high bandwidth costs and under-developed or poorly enforced telecommunication regulations are also likely to delay implementation of the project.

It might take another three to four years before bandwidth prices in the region come down, said Chireka.

Belcher said the biggest challenges facing the project now are human capacity issues and policy frameworks within individual universities and research institutes in East and Southern Africa.

Link to final FEAST report.

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