Nairobi — Internet broadband has become a reality in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda for the first time after one of the four awaited undersea cables was finally switched on today (Thursday).
The Seacom cable went live simultaneously in the four countries in addition to South Africa, and the Kenya portion of the cable was immediately connected to five internet service providers.
However, Seacom officials declined to name the ISPs because their customer contracts barred them from revealing such information.
Seacom, a privately-funded consortium, laid the cable at a cost of US$865m (Sh67 billion at current exchange rates). It is due to be connected to Rwanda in two weeks.
The commissioning was marked with a live telecast by Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete in Dar es Salaam with the media in Kampala, Maputo, Johannesburg, London and Marseille.
"The arrival of this cable signals the beginning of a new era in the telecommunications sector," said Mr Kikwete.
"History has been made."
Cisco Systems vice-president Yvon Le Roux, whose firm provided the technology for the cable, said: " "Today is the day technology has arrived in Africa."
Seacom announced that it would offer wholesale prices in the range of $100 (Sh7,700 ) per megabyte, with even more subsidised costs of between $10-$25 (Sh770-Sh1,925) dollars to schools, and research and health institutions.
"I can emphatically state that broadband will change the connectivity and economy of Africa," said Seacom president Brian Herlihy in a live feed from the Tanzanian capital.
Five yet-to-be-named internet players were the first to access the 6,500 kilometre-cable following the switch and will now connect their equipment to the marine cable as they prepare to link offices and homes.
But the private consortium warned that Kenyans would have to wait longer for the expected massive drop in prices as industry players sought to recoup their initial outlay.
"What we are providing is a highway and it will be up to the telcos and internet service providers to decide the final cost," said Mr Haskell Ward, Seacom's senior vice-president in charge of government relations, at the launch at the Swahili Cultural Centre where the Mombasa landing station is based.
The benefits are expected to be immense with the sub-sea cable expected to provide super-fast internet connections and vastly expanded bandwidth capacity.
"No project can compete with this for the importance it holds for Kenya and for Africa," said Mr Ward.
The forthcoming Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) Forum to be led by United States Secretary of State is a prime example of what the cable can do.
The talks are set to be streamed live to the five countries and will also feature what has until now been the stuff of movies.
Talks are on with medical service provider AAR to have a clinic at the venue that would be virtually manned by staff located at a different venue; a variant of telemedicine.
E-commerce and e-learning will also be greatly enhanced and it is this in mind that Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta allocated money to mobile ICT laboratories in all the constituencies.
Real time event streaming, high resolution and internet television and better voice, data and video services will also be among the more visible benefits.
Business Process Outsourcing firms are expected to be among the big winners as they would be able to compete on a more equal platform with their counterparts in Asian economies such as the Phillipines and India.
However analysts say it will be a challenge for the country to manage the huge broadband capacity given the dearth of skills and local content.
Seacom's entire system will be operated and controlled through Seacom's network operations centre based in Pune, India