If you’ve been keeping pace in the Afri-tech space lately, you have probably heard about two of the biggest projects battling for the Broadband Title by being the first to bring ubiquitous broadband access to all of Africa: the EASTERN AFRICA SUBMARINE CABLE SYSTEM (EASSy?) project and the Google-backed O3b Networks satellite project. If you haven’t, well, sit back, open up your brain, let me lay down the skinny for you. I’ll give you the play by play, complete with my layman’s sideline commentary on what this fight means for you my fellow African Diaspora and those back “home”.

Now don’t be fooled into thinking that this is going to be a fair fight by Western standards—with rules of engagement, sportsman-like conduct and the perfunctory nod of gentleman’s honor, blah blah blah. Oh no, this fight, my fellow techies, is going to be dirty, profit-centered (no matter their respective corporate mantras), knock-down, drag out, slap your mama and yo’ granny, kick’em while they are down kind of back alley scuffle. There will be clear losers and winners, and most disturbingly, there will be collateral damage. First, I think I should introduce you to the contenders.

THE CONTENDERS
In the red corner, let me introduce you to EASSy. The East African Submarine Cable System was established November 2002. It was born as a “Business Manifesto” from a November 2002 East African Business Summit, that there should a submarine cable on the East African coast, to complete the international undersea fibre loop that connects the rest of the world. It’s a partnership of East Africa’s “who’s who” in ICT and Telecommunications players including Telkom Kenya, Tanzania Telecommunications Company Limited, Uganda Telecom Limited, MTN Uganda, and Zanzibar Telecommunications Limited – ZANTEL, to name a few. More here. The completed cable is to provide cheaper backhaul high speed bandwidth to the 21-member countries‘ telecommunication’s infrastructure via a newly constructed fibre-optic network of cables. Alcatel Lucent was awarded the contract to build out EASSy.

In the blue corner is the svelt, well-connected O3b Networks–O3b standing for “other 3 billion” individuals world-wide not connected by broadband. It’s a partnership backed by Google, HSBC Holdings PLC, Allen & Company, and Liberty Global. O3b’s strategy is to launch a series (17) of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites that will provide “3G/WiMAX Wireless Backhaul and IP Trunkin”—which in plainspeak means they make it cheaper for phone and internet companies to roll out high speed mobile internet and broadband to customers via satellite. Here’s something interesting, O3b Networks is helmed by none other than Greg Wyler. More on him later. Thales Alenia Space‘s satellite building expertise helped the design and launch responsibilities for O3b’s network.

THE GAME PLANS

While these two companies have embarked on different roads to market, they all have the same goal in mind—build out the networks so more people (read: potential customers) can connect to our services. Globally, the digital divide between those that have high speed access and those that don’t in developed regions is quickly narrowing. This means that markets in developed regions are reaching saturation points, running out of potential customers to sign up. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for late-comers to the connectivity party hoping to hook up with anyone. So what’s the next best thing? Start your own party of course.

O3b’s game plan is to tap into undeveloped regions around the world that are too remote to be served traditionally or haven’t built-out suitable fibre optic networks to benefit from the high speed undersea cables. O3b plans to hurdle over this infrastructure shortfall, by jumping all the way into space.

This from Google’s Africa Blog:

The O3b satellite constellation will provide high-speed, low-latency backhaul services at speeds reaching into the gigabits per second. The satellites will orbit the earth at about one-third the altitude of a geo-synchronous satellite, which means it takes less time for data to travel up and back. This low latency translates into better voice connections as well as a snappier web experience.

Current geo-stationery satellite-delivered backhaul offerings are expensive, clogged and wrought with bandwidth limitations. It’s not uncommon for 2 or 3 internet cafe’s in East Africa to share a single 1MB connection. Divide that 1MB of bandwidth among the average 15-20 surfers at each of those 3 cafes and you get an idea how maddeningly slow internet speeds can be. Exerstertbating the problem is the fact that 1MB comes at a cost to the cafe owner of almost $2000 per month.

 

EASSy’s strategy is grounded, literary, in fiber. A high speed network of optical fiber cables to be exact. Most of the world’s internet and telecommunications traffic runs on a global interconnected network of undersea fiber optic cables—hence the ‘world-wide web’. But the problem with this network is that it ignores Africa (as a whole) altogether. With the exception of South Africa, and a handful of landing points in West and Northern Africa, the global undersea cable network treats Africa like an annoying speed bump that you guide traffic around. As you can see in the diagram above, East Africa is wholly ignored. EASSy has been hard at work “closing the final link” since 2003.

The diagram also illustrates how deep the digital divide is between Africa and the rest of the globe, with Africa only getting an anemic share of the broad band cake. Not surprisingly, the heaviest traffic by far is routed between the East Coast of America and the EU.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Now to the fun stuff. It comes as no surprise that successful completion of either of these two projects requires a healthy dose of financing. At the present, O3b Network requires US$650 million with US$60 million already secured through it’s financing partners. It should be noted that O3b, at least of publication of this article, is entirely privately funded. Remember Greg Wyler, he’s a serial entrepreneur with first-hand knowledge on the realities of trying to lay networks in Africa. He previously had an ill-received partnership with Rwanda’s “development-at-all-cost president, Paul Kagame. The US$20 million investment fizzled in a cloud of finger-pointing after 4 years. I can only assume that Mr. Wyler’s new venture was born out of experience, and he has learned from that failure, and like a perennial top athlete, is bouncing back with a new twist to the game plan.

EASSy, while cheaper by comparison, will require in excess of US$248, and I say ‘in excess’ because, as an African, I know that things magically tend to cost more than the amount put on paper. EASSy is being funded by the World Bank, various international development banks, contributions from the members of the consortium, and up until last year, NEPAD.

We all know that where there’s money in Africa, invariably big government, corruption, bickering, and back-stabbing are never too far behind. NEPAD threw a spanner in the works last year by deciding to drop out of the EASSy pact because of strategic in-fighting as to how best deploy the network. And just to further muddle the direction of the project, NEPAD became a direct competitor with plans to lay it’s own cable, with the blessing of various governments and telecoms that sided with NEPADS deployment direction. This creates an interesting tit for tat, because governments (read: South Africa, et al) can now disallow EASSy from landing the cable on it’s shores in order to protect NEPAD’s initiative and once again maintain a monopoly on bandwidth. And with NEPAD’s departure, the future of EASSy is now clouded. So much for competition is good for business.

< End Part 1 >

  1. Being directly involved with the Internet industry in Uganda, (Node Six does hosting and web applications), I’ve been holding my breath for a very long time, waiting for true broadband, not the nonsense the telecoms and ISPs keep throwing in our faces.

    And it’s a breath of fresh air to see some serious contenders coming up.

    Very Interesting and insightful article. Can’t wait for part two.

  2. @BSK What is Broadband for you, and why can’t you get it?

    Whatever the answer to the first part of the question, the answer to the 2nd part is that it costs to much to get it via satellite.

    For example, say you want 1 Megabit per second from your ISP. They buy that 1 Mb/sec at a cost ranging from ~2000 USD (for a large telco making a multi-Megabit purchase to 9000 USD(for a small ISP buying just the single Megabit per second. Now, they could sell that to you at cost plus x percent, or they could sell the same 1 Mb/sec multiple times to numerous customers in order to bring down costs and hopefully increase profits at the same time.

    The bottom line is that they are selling a very scarce commodity, and the reason it is scarce is because of the cost of carrying the bits to and fro using scarce spectrum via Geo-synchronous satellites (which are multibillion dollar investments). LEOs (Low-Earth Orbit) OTOH, are much smaller investments, provide lower latency and use freely available spectrum. Fibre is expensive to lay, but provides several orders of magnitude more bandwidth.

    @TMS Both fiber and satellites will be useful in the future, while there is an element of first to market/first mover advantage, it’s not a clear cut race to see which comes first. There are places that will never be served by fibre, which is where 03b connectivity will be useful, and there are circumstances where fibre will have market advantages.

    For telcos, their object has traditionally been to maintain scarcity which keeps prices (and margins) high, ISPs globally OTOH operate in a very low margin commodity business. Currently margins for ISPs are higher in East Africa than they are globally. Both the o3b and fibre projects will bring their costs down, and hopefully these cost savings will be passed on to the consumers. Both will be disruptive and highly beneficial if/when built. I eagerly await both types of connectivity.

    NB: EASSy may still be around as an idea and mulitstakeholder protocol, but the project to lay submarine cable to East Africa is now called smt like the NEPAD African regional broadband initiative, and due to political wrangling, the Kenyans are building their own called TEAMS and others are planning and building their own submarine links as well. So it’s not just a race between fibre and o3b, but a race amongst the various fibre projects as well.

  3. Hi TMS,

    Sorry, I only read the first page when replying to this article. You clearly have a good grasp of the situation. My question is this: Where are the boats? In other words, what is the exact status of the projects? Are there ships at sea, laying cable? if so how much has gone off the drums into the sea? There is literally no information about this online (yet). Would love to see some from TEAMS or FLAG or anybody really.

  4. Thank you for shedding light on the undersea vs space race.
    My observation is that LEO-Sat is a yet to be tried technology while undersea fiber is well tested technology. So I am inclined to keep my eyes on the several under sea fiber projects – at least for all major population centers of East Africa, even though hinterland cable laying has had its challenges (like people digging it up in some areas).

    In the article, only EASSy and TEAMS are mentioned but I thought SeaCom was the first to commence.
    IK

  5. @McTim, broadband to me, as least by Ugandan standards, is over 1 mbps, to the *internet backbone* not just to the ISP.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the costs of getting relatively fast internet connectivity in Uganda. I once did the figures and they were not pleasant. So maybe my use of the word “nonsense” was misleading.

    I just find it very annoying for someone (read ISP) to come up with new versions of “broadband” every other month, and then some ISPs assign download limits of 200MB per month. I use that on an average day. For work.

    Back to the main article, I’m not too sure if it’s good or bad in the long term, but the political wrangling in Africa alone has set us back so far it’s unbelievable. It’s a good thing there are foreign governments and corporations that see the potential we cannot see in our selves.

    Thanks for your enlightenment though, McTim. I’m no ISP guru, but this information is very promising.

  6. @BSK It seems we are in violent agreement on these issues 😉

    AS for “some ISPs” capping service @ 200 MB per month, is this a certain yello company? In any case it can be seen in a couple of different ways.

    A) This is an innovative product for “lite users” who want access, but don’t want to pay a lot for an “all you can eat” style connectivity. Pay as you go model enables consumers to control costs, .

    B) This is an insidious “nose of the camel under the tent” attack on Net Neutrality by a telco meant to milk consumers by charging them per Byte .

    In any case, clueful consumers/power users like us can see that this product isn’t useful for them. The question then is how to educate the folks who don’t have the same clue level. Hope to meet you at BHH on Thursday!!

  7. Hi guys, thanks a lot for your insightful comments. There’s enough material in here to warrant a follow-up article. I’ve extended inquiries for comment to some of the entities discussed. I’ll see if they have anything to say by the time the article is published on Monday. I’ll dig a little deeper into the issue and find out what’s at stake in this space over the next 18 months.

    Also, every time I am in Uganda, there isn’t a BHH. I hope you guys have a great time. Is there one in December? I will be in UG for the month.

    Cheers

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