Andrew Limo: Fibre optic cables set to boost trade in Kenya

For Kenya and the countries along the eastern coast of Africa, 2009 will be remembered as the year the real internet landed and the people began to communicate and do business in a way never imagined before.

The long awaited undersea fibre optic cable is coming to connect us to the rest of the world through cheaper telephony, the internet and even video communication. For people who know how to tap into the knowledge economy, this will enable the steroids to surge forward. For those who cannot figure out any opportunity, the digital gap widens.

Internet prices started falling when the telecommunication sector was liberalised a few years ago, with new competing technologies, mostly wireless, offering faster and a cheaper service than the copper wire dial-ups of the then monopoly, Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation.

KPTC which, split into three before Telkom was sold, is not entirely to blame for the high cost of the internet cost and international calls. Until the arrival of these magic cables, which transmit information over long distances using light signals reflected on glass, communicating to the outside world is through those metallic birds high up in the air called satellites.

The only change over time is that we stopped relying solely on the earth stations, such as Longonot, and started using smaller VSAT (very small aperture terminal) dishes.

Now a big race by service providers to offer high-capacity and affordable internet connection is on. Everyone says it is landing the cable in Mombasa soon, and Seacom, which touted the ambitious Africa One project in 1995 to wire the whole continent, seems determined to have a headstart in the raging fibre war.

Seacom’s local boss Jean-Pierre de Leu says he will pop up the champagne bottle on June 27.

THE EAST AFRICAN MARINE SYSTEM (TEAMS)), a consortium in which the government has shares, should be completing its link to the United Arab Emirates in April. The third provider, The Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy), which aims to connect the region from South Africa to Djibouti, is expected to land its fibre at about the same time.

One strand of optical fibre (the thickness of human hair) is capable of 20,000 simultaneous voice communication, or 25,000 gigabytes per second, of information — which is enough to carry text of 3 million books in a second.

Fibre technology was discovered by some young men with “obsession for glass” in South Carolina, USA, as early as the 1930s. For a long time it was used by the intelligence cameras and also doctors to spy on the human stomach.

So what are we going to do with what is clearly a broadband boom? People buying bulk internet expect the prices to fall from the current $3,000 (Sh240,000) a megabyte to around $400 (Sh32,000) or less by the end of the year. If this fall in pricing is passed onto the consumers, it should spur e-commerce, e-learning (distant learning), business process outsourcing (BPO) and so on.

The technology pipes will be wide enough for any innovation and imagination. The 2010 World Cup will be kicked in through these pipes using high-definition TV and internet TV, or IPTV.

But perhaps it is the BPO industry and call centres that are expected to rake in money for these multi-million-dollar investments. The current global credit crunch may force outsourcing firms in the developed countries to look for cheaper and new outsourcing destinations beyond the domination of India, the Philippines and China.

To benefit from the new knowledge economy, schools and universities must acquire the internet at subsidised rates, or how else do we expect to grow our scientists if they cannot afford online research?

The laying of overland fibre cables should also be stepped up, otherwise the superhighway will come to a stop in Mombasa and Nairobi.

The government’s effort to connect far-flung areas such as Lokitung, Loitoktok, Mandera and Malindi with fibre under the National Optic Fibre Backbone Infrastructure, NOFBI project is a proactive move that will give many people a chance to create new businesses, skills, electricity and security allowing.

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