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In East Africa, high hopes for a broadband revolution

By Matthew Shaer / July 23, 2009

A Kenyan boy looks at the East African Marine Cable (TEAMS) outside the Portuguese-built Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya. The cable has taken 18 months to reach Kenya from the Middle East. Analysts see underseas cables as key to improving information and communication technology in Africa.

Joseph Okanga/Reuters

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For years, East Africa has been plagued by spotty Internet and a dearth of high-speed access. Now, the region is on the brink of what many analysts are calling a genuine "broadband revolution." The catalyst: a 10,625-mile underseas cable linking South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Mozambique with London and Marseilles to the north and Mumbai to the East.

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The project, which cost an estimated $600 million, was engineered and implemented by SEACOM, an umbrella group of local governments and telecommunications companies. In a statement today, Brian Herhily, the president of SEACOM, said the launch marks the "dawn of a new era for communications between the continent and the rest of the world."

According to the Associated Press, until recently, the East African seabed of the Indian Ocean was the only one in the world without an underseas fiber-optic cable. Pre-SEACOM, residents relied on satellite and dial-up connections to stay connected to the Web.

A recent study from Forrester Research estimated that approximately 2.2 billion people will be online over the next few years – an increase of more than 45 percent over current figures. Much of that growth is expected to be in Africa and the Middle East, areas which have traditionally lagged behind China and the West in the strength and cost of Internet connections.

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete spoke to a group of international journalists about the importance of the cable. “The arrival of this cable signals the beginning of a new era in the telecommunications sector,” Kikwete said, according to Kenya's Daily Nation. “History has been made.”

Others cautioned that it will be sometime before the effects of the SEACOM project are truly felt. James Hodge, a competition and regulation analyst, told CNN that the cable will initially benefit East African residents that already have an internet connection.

Eventually, the technology will trickle down to rural areas, Hodge said.
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