In light of our feature article in this edition of Africa Telecoms, briefly describe how you feel about Seacom assisting with breaching the digital divide in Africa?
SEACOM is providing a large broadband connection to global networks. Consumers will be using the internet in ways they wouldn’t think of today: on-demand movies, music, home-made video, watching news programs, etc. With new web applications and uses being discovered daily, the potential economic benefits of affordable bandwidth are endless. In Africa, it is projected that there will be a major demand for bandwidth driven by some of the following “hotspots”:
• Tanzania is growing a logistics hub for eight East & Central African countries
• Uganda and Zambia are set to develop strong pharmaceutical research centres
• Kenya is looking at becoming a call centre hub with a major focus on Small & Medium Enterprises
• Rwanda, which has developed a visionary broadband strategy, is looking to establish a hub of bilingual call centres.
SEACOM often hears stories about the impact of inexpensive bandwidth on global Internet content in Europe, North America and Asia; however, SEACOM has seen much African-produced content that will vastly benefit the world. Recently, we met with a research group that is gathering data from traditional healers on homeopathic medicines. We were amazed to learn of the information being gathered and the potential to add to medical research globally. SEACOM’s partnership with southern African research and education networks through TENET (Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa) will facilitate faster development by providing subsidised international bandwidth to research and education networks across 40 universities. These education and research institutions now have 50 times more bandwidth at the same annual cost prior to the arrival of SEACOM. Bandwidth now equals the amount which was available to the entire Southern African population in 2008. TENET owns the capacity for the remaining life of the cable, resulting in substantial annual savings whilst enabling the affiliated institutions to develop and increase their international research collaborations and distance learning programmes. SEACOM is working to replicate this programme in East Africa.
Do you have an example of this scenario already or is it too soon?
We’ve already seen a decline in international long haul prices at the end consumer level. In East Africa specifically, Kenya’s progressive approach to telecoms, has resulted in large amounts of bandwidth being made available at a fraction of the cost, resulting in a reported 200% increase in data traffic within 14 days of SEACOM’s launch. South Africa has disappointed SEACOM in translating low cost international bandwidth into reduced consumer price. This is largely due to the major operators investing in their own cables and slowing any adoption of our cable. They also have a large consumer dependence on the incumbent’s terrestrial backhaul and last mile, limiting the ability for ISPs and operators to pass on savings. There has been a marked improvement though. In September 2009, for example, MTN announced a 50% increase in capacity for certain corporate clients in South Africa while Telkom and M-web also announced similar increases. Connectivity is now available, and it's up to governments and internet service providers to pass on savings and capacity to their customers, circumventing constraints and bottlenecks wherever possible.
What is your opinion regarding cheaper broadband which will benefit those who already have access to the internet against those of those who currently have no access ?
Through supplying plentiful bandwidth at a fraction of the current cost, there is no doubt that SEACOM’s arrival opens up unprecedented opportunities for governments, business and ordinary citizens alike. They can finally make use of a network which forms a platform to compete globally, drive economic growth and enhance quality of life. Providing broader access to Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) in Africa is a catalyst to unlocking sustainable economic and social development. By supporting a broad range of stakeholders its possible to develop, create growth and promote the continent as a serious player in the global economy.
From this point onwards, what do you think the next step is?
Now that Africa has a solid fibre backbone what more is needed in order to finally bridge the digital divide? An open and liberal approach to telecommunications is essential. Governments hold the key in allowing businesses to exploit ICT-linked opportunities which will enable the acceleration of broadband penetration. There is also the catalyst effect that needs to be considered. Undersea cables will justify an investment in national fibre, fibre to the home, new wireless networks, data centres, call centres and BPOs.
What has been the biggest hurdle thus far with the Seacom Project?
SEACOM is offering one, seamless product to end-users, across 11 sovereign nations. Some of our challenges were tax and contract related. SEACOM, as an international entity, had to figure out how to sign contracts at a local level and then deliver that product throughout all the countries we were involved with. SEACOM had to use its subsidiaries and local partners in each one of these countries, who were already licensed and established, to carry communication infrastructure. You're trying to set that up in a very short period – keeping in mind that construction of the cable is really only 18 to 24 months. The availability of human resources which could interact with a venture such as SEACOM was also a challenge in some countries.
With only a small amount of capacity sold thus far and a total expected capacity of 1280Gbps, what is the projected time-frame that Seacom is working towards in having the full capacity sold and used throughout Africa?
We have seen capacity purchase continue at a healthy pace since the launch. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised to see East Africa leading the charge. As demand increases and users find new ways to utilise the Internet and overall connectivity, we will experience an exponential trend in capacity requirements leading to more purchases. From an investment perspective, we expect a return on this investment within five years.
In your estimation, what effect will the partnership with Altech’s KDN have on Broadband access in Central Africa?
From the outset of the project, we realised the importance of connecting inland countries to the international network and many countries set out to deploy massive terrestrial networks in anticipation of the arrival of real and affordable international bandwidth connectivity. With more and more countries getting connected to the rest of the world via the SEACOM system, it is only a matter of time before we see the direct socio-economic benefits this will have on the entire region. The African market for international bandwidth is expected to swell within a short period of time, with a significant portion of this new demand coming from East and central Africa. Altech and SEACOM have taken a giant step towards unlocking this enormous potential in East Africa. Our success would not be possible without the infrastructure which links our beach landing stations to metropolitan PoPs (Point of Presence). KDN’s extensive inland infrastructure in East Africa will link our landing station in Mombasa to Nairobi, then on to Kampala and Kigali. In addition, we hope to connect Kigali and Addis Ababa soon and will continue to explore further opportunities across central African countries.
Are there future plans to extend the SEACOM network to the west coast of Africa or is the current network as far as the project is planned at the moment?
Although no specific plans are in place at this point, we will continuously evaluate all opportunities and strategic options to compliment and improve our current offering.
What impact will SEACOM’s cable have on traditional voice communications in Africa or is SEACOM purely going to provide data services to the continent?
Access to previously unobtainable, cheap and easily available broadband will allow East and Southern Africa to connect to international broadband networks. The infrastructure should see Africa becoming a major competitor for call centres/business process outsourcing (BPO), research and education. Financial, manufacturing and other sectors will bring down their cost of doing business while increasing their productivity. This will, in part, be possible through the provision of cheaper traditional voice calls using fibre networks. As an example, Gateway Communications has purchase significant capacity on SEACOM.