Africa's EASSY cable set for operations in 2009

Africa's EASSY undersea cable will be operational in 2009, project members now say.

Feasibility studies for the East Africa Submarine cable system (EASSY) have been completed, paving way for the project to be operational in the first quarter of 2009, according to project coordinator John Sihra.

The cable will connect 21 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa including Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi and Botswana. The venture is Africa's largest undersea cable project.

The completion of the feasibility studies for the US$250 million submarine telecommunications cable project has cleared the way for it to begin in next year's first quarter, after a December project meeting in Zambia.

Work on the cable has been delayed by 18 months. The completion of the feasibility studies follows the approval of a US$32.5 million investment in the cable by International Finance, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group.

The project has also received funding from the Development Bank of Southern Africa, African Development Bank and the European Development Bank.

The 10,500-kilometer cable will run under the Indian Ocean from Durban, South Africa, to Port Sudan in Sudan. French telecom company Alcatel-Lucent SA has already been awarded the contract to lay the cable, which will provide connectivity across Africa. The goal is to support the increase in local traffic and new broadband services and connect Africa to the rest of the world.

The completed project's goal is to significantly reduce the region's high telecommunications costs.

"Currently, countries in the region using satellite telecommunication pay monthly charge of US$15,000 but this would be reduced to about US$10,000 per month using the fiber cable," Sihra said.

Political interference and squabbles over the definition of open access have been blamed for the delay in laying the cable, according to Sihra. Some EASSY members have also embarked on other cable projects.

The Kenyan government, a member of the EASSY project, is laying its own parallel cable, known as the East Africa Marine Systems (TEAMS) that will connect East Africa to the Middle East and South America. This cable project would be operational in the second quarter of 2009.

The South African government initially denied the EASSY project a landing point, claiming South African companies, including Mobile Telecommunication, should have additional shares in the project. The South African government has since allowed the project to have a landing point in the country.

Project managers and a consortium of operators formed to operate the cable have also agreed that the cable will be run on an open-access principle, so that all service providers in the region would have access to the bandwidth on an equal basis. The rates they will be paying have not yet been determined.

The EASSY consortium of investors wanted to allow only service providers with international gateway license to become network member. But the World Bank and other international development agencies feared that if service providers with international gateway licenses were the only ones allowed to acquire the bandwidth, they would form a cartel. This could result in high costs for users, according to the World Bank.

Eston Muyobo, the board chairman of the Zambia Telecommunication and a member of the EASSY project, said by December the company will finish laying a national fiber-optic cable, which will be connected to the EASSY project. Several service providers in the region are also laying national cables to be connected to the EASSY project.

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Michael Malakata

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