Wednesday, September 16, 2009

East Africa Joins The High-Speed Web

Web surfing in Kenya, and other parts of East Africa is getting a lot faster. The second of three new undersea fiber-optic broadband cables went live over the weekend - the TEAMS cable joined another called Seacom, which started operating earlier in the summer, in bringing broadband services to Kenya. A third undersea cable is expected to come online in the near future.

With few landlines, until now most Kenyans had to rely on cellphones, or if they could afford it, satellite data uplinks to access the web. The new cables then have the potential to link PCs around the country to the Internet and to the global community for the first time. One entrepreneur put it this way to the BBC: "we have just opened our market from 37 million to six billion," going on to then tout the growth potential for Kenya and Africa opened by the new cables.

That is if people can afford it. A growing criticism is that the companies who own the cables right now are charging far more than the average Kenyan can pay for the service. For example, one ISP is charging $1,440 a year for a one megabyte per second connection, while the average salary in Kenya is just $800. Until prices come down, critics say, the cables won't have a great impact in the lives of many Kenyans.

But supporters of the Internet project say that the biggest problem is that the effects of the cables were oversold - that Kenyan ISPs mae it seem like the cables would change Kenya's Internet access overnight. Prices will come down, they say, as more infrastructure is built and as more people sign up for Internet service.

But even now, easier access to the Web is starting to filter down to rural communities, where some are getting access to the Internet for the first time. Kenya's ISPs and government are promising that much faster, and much cheaper, 'net access is just around the corner.
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