Yesterday's switch-on of the privately-funded Seacom undersea cable has been described as an historic day for Africa. For South Africans it is significant enough, doubling international capacity in a single stroke, but for countries in East Africa it is even more significant in that it is their first fixed international connection ever.
The 17 000km cable runs from the kwaZulu-Natal coast to Europe and India, with landing points in countries along the route.
Stressing that the project is privately- owned and -funded, Shanduka Group executive chairman Cyril Ramaphosa says the commissioning of the cable is something new and historic out of Africa.
"This is an African project – for Africans by Africans," he says. "This is something we should witness more often – it is Nepad in real life.
"The benefits we as Africans will derive are enormous in terms of education and the way we do business."
Brian Herlihy, CEO of Seacom, adds that the project will influence how a generation of Africans comes of age.
"Today we can say we are contributing to things that will change the face of Africa is so many positive ways," he says.
The new cable has a capacity of 1.28Tb (more than 1 280 Gigabytes), sufficient to enable high-definition TV, IPTV and peer-to-peer networks, as well as to provide for surging Internet demand, especially ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Importantly, pricing will be significantly lower than present pricing, which will allow greater access to the technology in southern and East Africa.
The commissioning of the cable has been welcomed by South African businesses.
“We welcome the dawn of more competitive communications,” says James Herbst, CEO of Huge Telecom. “For decades South Africa has been ranked as one of the countries with the highest communications costs and this has in some industries stifled a lot of potential.
“There are really two sides to the coin,” says Herbst. “The vast improvement in capacity will open up the door to technology solutions that have been near impossible to implement effectively in the past, such as Software-as-a-Service and true Cloud Computing, whilst the expected cost-reduction will mean that communications will finally become more accessible.
“Communications is critical to the stability and growth of any country,” says Herbst. “Studies have proven time and time again that there is a direct correlation between pervasive broadband and economic growth and the access that Seacom and eventually other international cables will provide is definitely a step in the right direction,” he adds.
Tim Walter, general manager: product & marketing at independent telecommunications service provider, Nashua Mobile, says that although expectations of massive, overnight price drops are unrealistic, the new cable will introduce real competition to this part of the telecommunications market and help to gradually bring prices down while driving data usage caps up.
"Up until now, most of the country's international bandwidth through the Sat-3/Safe cables has been controlled by the incumbent operator and slow satellite connectivity was the only real alternative. Now, other networks and service providers have an alternate source for international bandwidth that they can turn to."
Walter says that the introduction of Seacom should result in some price drops for broadband Internet users, although they should bear in mind that international bandwidth accounts for only part of the expense of an Internet connection.
In addition, for reasons of redundancy and capacity, service providers will need to use Sat-3/Safe in addition to Seacom, meaning that the owners of the older cables will still have a great deal of market power. "These factors will preclude sudden and sharp drops in broadband prices," Walter says.
However, broadband users can expect to see their data caps grow rapidly in the months and years to come as international bandwidth becomes cheaper and more abundant. That will mean that they will be able to do far more with their Internet connections – including video streaming and big media downloads – at a far more affordable cost, says Walter.
Telkom, for example, recently lifted caps on 2 Gb broadband packages to 3 Gb and 3 Gb caps to 5 Gb. Caps of 10GB, 20GB, 30GB or more could become affordable to average broadband users within a matter of two to three years.
Seacom's arrival marks only the beginnings of a more competitive market for international bandwidth in South Africa, notes Walter. A host of additional cables, including the West Africa Cable System (WACS) and the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy), will add bring even more international bandwidth to the country over the next two years.
In addition, Telkom plans to nearly treble the capacity of the Sat-3 submarine cable system that connects next month. The operator will upgrade Sat-3 from 120Gbps to 340Gbps and has said that it expects dramatic falls in the cost of international bandwidth over the next few years.