As I enjoy my newly installed 100Mbps Hikari fiber internet connection here in Japan, I pray that, by the time I return to Malawi, the land of my birth, I will be able to enjoy the same or even better. Malawi, often included in Southern Africa, can also be geographically included in the easterly region  of the African continent. This is the only region in the World that has neither intra – African nor direct access to worldwide international cable networks. The region instead relies on expensive satellite communication. Data costs in this region are among the highest in the world.

The Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) was the first initiative proposed to connect countries of eastern Africa via a high bandwidth fibre optic cable system to the rest of the world. The project, funded by the World Bank and the Development Bank of Southern Africa, was initiated in January 2003, when a handful of companies investigated its feasibility. EASSy is planned to run from Mtunzini in South Africa to Port Sudan in Sudan, with landing points in six countries, and connected to at least five landlocked countries including Malawi. It was expected to be ready for commercial use in the second quarter of 2007. But this did not come to pass as planned. Construction did not start until March 2008 and the project is now slated for completion in and commercial service in the second half of 2010 – three years behind schedule. EASSy has not been EASY!

The major problems hampering the progress of the EASSy project stem from the fact that it is a joint venture of more than 20 largely monopolistic parastatal telecommunication bureaucracies. In Africa, the culture of working together in such a large grouping is not common (correct me with vivid examples if I am wrong!). Which is why there have been squabbling among project members on issues to do with ownership, finance, competition, access etc. For instance, Telkom South Africa, a major EASSy stakeholder, said it may withdraw from the project, as it may be forced to reduce the fees it charges rival operators to use its bandwidth on SAT-3, a cable connecting Portugal and Spain to South Africa, which is co-owned by Telkom South Africa. Simply put, Telkom wanted to extend its monopolistic tendencies to EASSy.

Project managers and a consortium of operators formed to promote the EASSy project also wanted to exert their greedy tactics on the project by advocating  for  a “members-only” use of the cable, contrary to the position of the World Bank and The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), who took a leading role in securing US$150 million in grants for the project. The World Bank and NEPAD insisted that fiber-optic capacity be offered to ISPs (Internet service providers) and other nonmember telecom operators for free, and that service providers without gateway licenses should also be allowed to use the infrastructure. Had the project managers and the consortium of operators gone ahead with their desires, EASSy would have become a monopoly just like the SAT-3 cable on the west coast of Africa, which is characterized by high bandwidth costs.

The Kenyan government, after growing frustrated with the ownership model favored by South Africa, the time the project was taking and what it perceived as an attempt by South Africa to control the cable, decided to partner with the Emirates Telecommunication Establishment (Etisalat) to build its own fibre optic cable – The East African Marine Systems (TEAMS). In October 2007, Kenya awarded an $82 million contract to Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent to build TEAMS cable linking its coast and the United Arab Emirates. TEAMS will be ready for commercial use in the second quarter of 2009.

In a related development, SEACOM, a Mauritian company owned 75% by African investors, including Venfin Limited and Shanduka Group,  is constructing another submarine cable on the east coast of Africa. It will link South Africa, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, India and Europe. The cable is expected to be completed in June 2009. Neotel, South Africa’s first converged communications network operator, will be responsible for landing the cable in South Africa.

I am of the view that the progress on the EASSy project would have been much slower in the absence of TEAMS and SEACOM. It will be great to have  three submarine cables in the region. This will create sufficient price competition among them thereby driving data costs in the region even lower.