Undersea cable boosts broadband

Cable plough about to go down into the sea off East Africa
Date:31 July 2009 Tags:, , , , , ,

With a capacity of 1,28 tbps, the seacom link will open up new possibilities for countries on Africa's east and south coasts

Helping farmers to optimise crop yields by better understanding changing weather patterns, researchers at the University of Cape Town’s African Climate@Home project link hands across the Atlantic with researchers in the USA. Number-crunchers at Uganda’s Jinja ICT Technopark explore developments in Biotechnology via the Web. A sub-Saharan multimedia production specialist tells African stories to Dubai Media City and beyond.

What’s powering all of these: broadband connectivity. And that’s about to get a massive boost thanks to initiatives such as the Seacom undersea cable, which was due to open for business at the end of June.

Fact is, what we in Africa like to call broadband is a throttled, sluggish impostor. The new cable will provide a capacity of 1,28 terabits per second. Currently, countries in the region rely on expensive satellite connections.

Laid at a cost of over R5 billion, the cable stretches from Mumbai in India to Mtunzini on the Zululand coast. Landing stations are located at Djibouti, Mombasa, Dar Es Salaam, Toliary and Maputo. Additional links inland connect to cities that include Johannesburg, Kigali and Addis Ababa. From a junction at the horn of Africa, it will link via cable to hubs in Europe and London for what its operators have termed “true broadband”. It’s also acted as a catalyst for investments in fibre and wireless infrastructure.

According to Seacom CEO Brian Herlihy, the cable will help unlock development in south and east Africa by providing equal and open access to inexpensive bandwidth. An explosion is being forecast in areas such as call centres and business process outsourcing.

What does this mean for South Africa’s nearly 5 million Internet users – according to World Wide Worx, that number is expected to top 8 million within the next four years? We’re at a tipping point, with bandwidth costs coming under pressure even before the cable was commissioned. Ultimately, prices may not necessarily drop much; what could happen is vastly improved speeds and bandwidth, for similar money. This will put services such as HDTV and multimedia over the Internet within reach. Before then, the cable is well timed to take advantage of what’s sure to be a huge bandwidth appetite generated by the 2010 football World Cup.

Neotel CEO Ajay Pandey has been quoted as describing the cable’s impact as heralding a new dawn of South African global competitiveness.

Battling the pirate scourge. It wasn’t bad weather, high seas or mechanical breakdowns that gave Seacom CEO Brian Herlihy sleepless nights. Even a brief look at a map of the cable’s route will show the real problem: between the cable’s two endpoints lies the horn of Africa, home to bloodthirsty pirates. So, for the three months that the cable-laying vessel passed through this perilous area, its ship locator beacon was turned off and private gunships rode shotgun.