x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Kenyans wire into 21st century

Fibre-optic cables reach the shores of Kenya, bringing high-speed internet access to the country that previously relied on satellite.

Workers haul part of a fibre-optic cable on to the shore at Mombasa this month.
Workers haul part of a fibre-optic cable on to the shore at Mombasa this month.

NAIROBI // The internet is down again and Jane Kibandi, a regular at a cyber cafe in the Kenyan capital, is unable to update her Facebook page with photos from her recent college trip. Ms Kibandi, a sociology student at the University of Nairobi, said the slow internet connection and frequent disruptions in service make it hard to get any serious work done. She is one of millions of east Africans who stand to benefit from a fibre-optic cable that will for the first time connect Kenya to the rest of the world. "It's frustrating to work online," Ms Kibandi, 21, said. "We've been hearing a lot about this fibre-optic cable. I hope it improves our lives like they say it will."

Last week, the first of three fibre-optic cables reached land at the Kenyan port of Mombasa. The 4,500km cable, which originates in Fujairah, will bring reliable high-speed broadband internet access to this part of Africa. Kenyans currently rely on satellite internet connections, which are slow and costly. A fibre-optic cable is made of a thin strand of glass the width of a human hair and wrapped in layers of plastic and metal coating. The new cable in Kenya will be able to transmit 1.2 terabytes, or 1,200 gigabytes, of data per second at light speed.

With the landing, east Africa became the last coastline in the world to be connected to the global submarine telecommunications network. Kenyans are wired about getting wired. At an inauguration ceremony in Mombasa, Mwai Kibaki, Kenya's president, hailed the new cable as a positive step towards development in east Africa. "With the launch of this project, Kenya is now equipped with one of the most advanced and cost-effective nation-building tools," he said. "It will allow east Africans to be fully digital citizens of the 21st century."

The East Africa Marine Systems cable is a joint project between Emirates Telecommunication, better known as Etisalat, the Kenyan government and a consortium of local investors. The project, costing US$82 million (Dh301m) is expected to become operational next month with many benefits for Kenyans across the country. Access Kenya and other local internet companies have been tearing up roads and laying hundreds of kilometres of cable across Kenya in the past six months in preparation for the fibre-optic link's arrival. Governments of landlocked Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan are negotiating with Kenya to hook up with the cable.

Urban Kenyans, accustomed to slow, expensive internet, will see a drastic reduction in cost. In Kenya's annual budget, released last week, the finance minister allowed internet providers to offset the cost of purchasing fibre-optic bandwidth for 20 years, further reducing the cost to consumers. Analysts say the price of bandwidth will drop by between 60 per cent and 80 per cent. Kenya plans to use the increased bandwidth to become a bigger destination for business outsourcing, a market that India has claimed in recent years. Despite the current cumbersome satellite connection, Kenya has a fledgling call-centre industry that employs 3,000 people fielding calls from mostly western customers who have questions or complaints about products. Once the fibre-optic connection is in place, government officials say, the price of business outsourcing to Kenya will be considerably reduced. The government also has plans to overhaul its outdated website to provide Kenyans with more government services online, such as applying for identity cards and registering businesses.

"This will allow Kenyans access to government services more cheaply and quickly while cutting off avenues of corruption that usually delay their delivery," Bitange Ndemo, the communications and information secretary told the local Daily Nation newspaper. The fibre-optic link will also bring internet access to villages nationwide meaning that millions of rural Kenyans will be able to go online for the first time. The government is setting up so-called digital villages across the country. These cyber villages will offer free training to villagers on donated computers and provide free internet access through the cable. For the youth of Kenya, the cable means faster downloads of their favourite music and television shows. It will also make it easier to stay connected on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Last week, Facebook launched a website in Swahili, the language spoken by 110 million people in east Africa. This, combined with the prospect of faster internet speeds, is good news to students like Ms Kibandi. "It is about time," she said. "It is our turn for a technology revolution." mbrown@thenational.ae