Digital divide returns as high speed cable severed

It was only two-and-a-half years ago that the first undersea cable brought high-speed internet to East Africa. In this time a lot has changed. Last weekend the cable was severed by a ship dropping anchor in the port of Mombasa.

The world of ICT is growing fast in Kenya. Recently “Garage Nairobi” opened its doors as “Africa’s largest co-working/tech space with 130 workstations”. In the same week, the American multinational Qualcomm launched a new business centre in Nairobi to strengthen its presence in sub-Saharan Africa by providing high-speed mobile broadband networks. Within days, the Kenyan mobile services provider Cellulant announced that they will team up with the UK’s Barclays Bank to provide mobile money services across the continent.

What makes all these initiatives possible is the 5,000-kilometre fiber optic cable known as The East African Marine System (TEAMS) which went operational in 2009 to provide high-speed data to East Africa. The cable stretches along the ocean floor from the United Arab Emirates to Mombasa. Last Saturday the cable was sliced by a ship’s anchor. While 10 percent of the functioning has returned for crucial services, the internet communications in Kenya and neighboring countries are experiencing severe delays.

Internet savvy Kenyans
Kenya has already gained hi-tech fame with initiatives such as Mpesa, iHub and Ushahidi. Around one million Kenyans are on Facebook. Kenyans are also Africa’s most active users of Twitter, after South Africa.

Tosh Juma is the manager of iHub in Nairobi. The iHub is an open space for local technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers. “I am in Java Cafe in downtown Nairobi right now, on a wireless internet connection. When I look around me I see people playing with their mobile phones and laptops. The guy in front of me seems pretty happy, laughing at the clips on YouTube. Three years ago this would have been impossible,” said Juma before the cable was severed.

“There are many internet start-ups in Nairobi. At times, you can really feel the energy buzzing at the iHub. We work with 30mbps speed which is pretty fast. But even from the connection I have at home, which is 2mbps, I can watch YouTube videos pretty decently without buffering.’

Internet truly for all?
Juma believes that there is no longer a digital divide when it comes to social networking. “Even in underprivileged neighborhoods such as Mathare and Dandora you’ll find a lot of people going to cyber cafes where you hear jokes that can only come from a proper understanding of what Twitter, Facebook and email actually is,” said Juma.

A different perspective comes from Mohamed Ali Samow, a journalist living in Wajir, a small rural town in north Kenya. The region was in the news last year because of severe drought and food scarcity.

“The internet has not the same impact here in Wajir as in Nairobi. Here the speed is low and the prices are high. They charge two Kenyan shillings [two euro cents] per minute. The mobile internet data prices are the same as in Nairobi, but due to the poor connections, it’s actually expensive,” said Samow. “However many government services are now done online, so-called e-government, like applying for government jobs or getting your identity card. This makes the Wajir people use the internet more.”

“They say the internet sea cables are now coming to Wajir soon. We witnessed earlier this year major telecommunication companies working on connecting us to fast internet. Let’s hope they bring their services too.”

Cyberfrustrations down
Caspar Pedo is a Kenyan in Mombasa working for Forum for International Cooperation (FIC, a Danish NGO). He has seen his internet frustration reduce drastically. “We now have a very good wireless internet connection at home. It’s fast – 8mbps – and we pay only three and half thousand Kenyan shillings a month [around 32 euros]. In 2007 my organisation was paying seventy thousand Kenyan shillings [around 800 euros] for a slow connection of 256kbps. Now a home wireless connection has become a fairly normal thing for the lower- and higher-middle classes.”

Pedo has also observed that coffee houses, bars and restaurants are now competing for clients on the basis of internet availability. “I believe the situation in Nairobi, Mombasa and even Nyali is uniform. I just heard a story that a security officer in central Kenya foiled a robbery by mobilising the neighbors with the use of Twitter. You got to love the internet!”

Meanwhile, a TEAMS official has announced that the cable should be back in full service within three weeks

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