[AfrICANN-discuss] East Africa: Seacom Breakdown Reveals Capacity Crisis

LO MAMADOU alfamamadou at hotmail.com
Mon Jul 12 17:13:46 SAST 2010

East Africa: Seacom Breakdown Reveals Capacity Crisis
Catherine Riungu
12 July 2010

Nairobi — Kenya and Tanzania last week experienced a drastic slowdown in Internet connections following the breakdown of Seacom, one of the fibre-optic cables that serve the region.

Seacom said in a letter to its customers that it was not sure how long it would take to fix the problem, considering that it takes a ship close to a week to get technicians to the problem area; and, while the time taken to rectify the fault is relatively short, it all depends on many other factors, including the weather.

"Seacom experienced a submarine failure resulting in service downtime between Mumbai and Mombasa. Current investigations indicate that a repeater has failed on segment 9 of the Seacom cable, which is offshore to the north of Mombasa," the letter said.

In Kenya, this meant that operators had to buy bandwidth in the wholesale market through the Teams Consortium, which overwhelmed the system. Seacom's breakdown, which would have been a business opportunity for dominant players in the regional wholesale bandwidth market, however brought to fore the industry rivalry that has started cropping up.

This is especially so after it emerged that the Kenyan government had handed over its 20 per cent shareholding in Teams to France Telecom to run as part of their settlement in the dispute over Telkom Kenya's missing assets after privatisation. France Telecom was also granted the monopoly to manage all of Kenya's national fibre-optic network, the government's contract for voice and data.

This is in addition to controlling Telkom's fixed line network that today gives it access to 240,000 households -- a further 60,000 that can be quickly connected. France Telecom, as a founding member of Teams, controlled a fifth of the shareholding, which entitled it to buy a similar amount of bandwidth.

However, with the French firm now controlling Kenya government's portion, it now controls over 40 per cent shareholding. The fact that it controls the national landing station for all fibre optic networks and has this huge access to bandwidth capacity and distribution means that it is arguably the most important player in the wholesale market, and potentially in the retail market if it gets its act together.

But Communications Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo defended the move saying that despite the landing base and infrastructure being put under France Telkom, it would be operated on an "open access basis".

The breakdown underscores the importance of setting up as many cables as possible, according to Mr Ndemo. He said that in two years, Kenya's demand for Internet connectivity is expected to outstrip the current supply. Meanwhile, the Eassy fibre optic cable that was expected in June is yet to be switched on.

"From our experience the deployment of international fibre systems is a costly and delicate process. In order for the return on investment to be realised it is essential for the capacity on the cable to be taken up," said Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph.

"It is therefore in the interests of every cable system to ensure that its capacity pricing is dynamic and in sync with market realities failing which the cable system will run a very real risk of being commercially unviable."

Growing unease

The West Indian Ocean Cable Company (Wiocc) that is managing Eassy on behalf of 12 African governments, said the cable, which was partly funded by the World Bank, was developed as a social more than a commercial development enterprise and can only be managed by governments.

Chief executive officer Chris Wood said the firm was no longer certain when the cable would go live.

He said that at inception, national telcos in the participating countries signed contracts binding them to purchase bandwidth from Eassy, and price it within parameters that will drastically reduce the cost.

For Kenya, this was done before France Telkom bought into Telkom Kenya, but after the French firm acquired the government fibre optic infrastructure last month.

Wiocc is uneasy with the arrangement, which it says might keep prices up. Without divulging further details, he said that a major announcement would be made in a two weeks. Telkom Kenya declined to comment on the matter, but Mr Ndemo said Eassy's original plan of governments running the cable was "outdated."

"Inevitably, some cables will have to die and be purchased cheaply," he said. Sources familiar with the goings on intimated that the Eassy cable could be rerouted from Kenya, dealing a major blow to expectations that the country would get faster Internet. "The country is on its way back to monopoly in the fibre optic infrastructure," an insider who requested anonymity said.

Mr Wood revealed that the cable is ready to go live in all other countries except Kenya, which is the headquarters of Wiocc, chosen because of its being a hub, and possession of superior infrastructure. He, however declined to say whether the company planned to leave Kenya.

Unlike Teams and Seacom, Eassy is connected directly to Europe through Djibouti and Northern Sudan, which would give the connecting countries a cheaper and faster link to the information super highway.

Teams is connected through Fujaira in UAE while Seacom passes via Mumbai in India, where they are put on an onward transmission to Internet exchanges and hosting sites in Europe and North America.

"There is great value in having Eassy completed at the soonest possible opportunity as it will provide much needed restoration capacity for the other two cable systems," said Mr Joseph.


Source : East african
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