Speeding up East African internet

When talking about Maneno, I will refer to this map which shows the rather squalid penetration of internet on the African continent. The map is actually a bit generous as in reality, the population in most African countries with access to internet is 3-5%. That means there are a whole lot of people who are left out of the cyberspace thing, given that there are around one billion people living in Africa.

Of course, one thing to note is that those with connectivity have quite slow connections. This is a big part of the reason why Maneno has been built to have as light a footprint as possible so that there is less for users to download and the site is more responsive. For awhile, I thought that the situation in South, Central (some parts), and West Africa was a bit better as they actually have real cable along the ocean floor connecting them up. While this is a great deal better than a VSAT connection, it is still apparently not that good and the connection speeds are decent, but not all that great.

Eastern Africa was a whole different story with their connectivity being nearly all from VSAT connections, which are better than nothing, but pretty lousy overall as it takes time for a data signal to go from the ground to space and then back to the ground. As reported on BBC though, this is changing a great deal.
There are currently three companies (Seacom, Eassy and TEAMS) working to lay proper undersea cable along the eastern shores of Africa linking up the east side of South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, and Sudan. For these countries, this is great news. In addition to the speed bump, it has the possibility of dropping internet costs to 1/3 of what they currently are and they’re making fast progress, although not as fast as one distasteful April Fool’s Day joke claimed.

People are cautiously optimistic though. For starters, these companies aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re doing it for a profit and some worry that this will be reflected in the cost. People are worried that this will be out of reach to most people living in the areas where these new linkups will happen. I agree that this is an issue, but this is always the issue. Early adoption is always expensive. There will be some that take advantage of it immediately, like foreign aid groups and companies who will gladly pay the cost to have stable, fast internet. This in turn will create a demand and will drive down cost. As a comparison, we saw this happen in the US. When DSL broadband first came about, it was $150 a month or more. I couldn’t even afford a DSL account until 2001 when it was a “mere” $50 a month. Now it’s $15 because enough people have adopted the technology. The economy of scale can be a blessed thing.

Maybe something similar to this will happen in East Africa, but only time will tell. The real problem will be to get the adoption rates to grow because the point where these cable lines tie in are all going to be on the coasts. It’s up to the country to then drag it inland and Kenya appears to be the main exception where they are making strides to tie up the inland country. Most likely there will be a speedy link up from Mombasa to Nairobi as that is quite crucial. For other areas, who knows and it’s there that we may see a good chunk of time go by before these links hit the secondary cities in most countries.

It’s rather interesting to note that a lot of this cable work is being timed to coincide with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Apparently, folks thought it was high time to get some better speeds down there for what will undoubtedly be a massive invasion of internet horny foreigners. I wouldn’t be surprised if they take advantage of these lines for broadcasting as well, but I haven’t a clue in that department.

Oh, for all the Americans worrying that Somalian pirates might chase down and overcome the cabling ships, world navies are patrolling the cable ship. Also, in the case of TEAMS project, which is running just from Kenya to UAE, they’ve moved the line to be 200km away from the shore of Somalia, just to be sure. So sleep easy. People know what they’re doing.