Steve Song has created this elegant graphic of the various broadband cables that are under construction to serve the African continent.

African undersea cables by Steve Song

African undersea cables by Steve Song (click to enlarge)

I admire graphics that are elegant, clear, and easy to understand, and I think this is a particularly fine example. Song also provides more information on the undersea cables, including ownership, cost, schedules, and capacity.

chart of broadband projects

chart of broadband projects (click to enlarge)

This means there will be a lot more internet access in Africa coming soon. Although, as you can see, these projects just bring broadband to the coast. More work will be necessary to increase broadband access inland.

From FP Passport:

This great map by Steve Song shows where things will be in a few years with line thickness representing bandwith size. The TEAMS cable (green on map above) is one of three international fiber optic cables expected to reach East Africa this year.

The next (red on map) is constructed by SEACOM, a private company in partnership with a number of African companies. It has already landed, to less fanfare because the Kenyan government has a stake in TEAMS, and is supposed to be ready by the end of June, connecting East Africa to Europe and Asia. The third, the East African Marine Cable System (EASSy) is sponsored by the International Finance Corporation, the private sector wing of the World Bank and is scheduled to be finished in 2010 (blue on map).

On the other side of the continent, Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) a cable from Europe all the way down the West African coast to South Africa is underway (pdf) and projected to go online in 2011 (orange on map). Several others are also supposed to go online by that time, immensely increasing Africa’s bandwith access. Song has an interactive version of his map in which one can view any combination of the different cables or each alone to get a better look.

When the cables go online, they will replace satellite connections as the main source of internet access in Africa, increasing speed, reliability and reducing cost. This should improve productivity and allow increased access with the lower price. In Kenya, the internet company Access Kenya has already pledged that the new cables will double internet speed for its users, and companies are scrambling buy access to the broadband and to finalize internal fiber optic cables. Neighboring landlocked states like Uganda and Rwanda are seeking to do the same.

As interconnectivity between African countries increases, economic benefits are expected, especially in Kenya, which has a fast developing IT sector. Other potential impacts include education and access to media.



The big question remaining is how to get affordable broadband inland from the coast. And there may be a solution:

Weather balloons may soon provide the first affordable broadband Internet access to the one-billion-strong African mass market.

Accountant Timothy Anyasi and petroleum engineer Collins Nwani, both Nigerian-born serial entrepreneurs based in the U.S., have secured exclusive rights to market a type of near-space technology — developed by American telecommunications company Space Data — throughout the African continent.

In her June 17 article, Weather Balloons to Serve Up Web Access in Africa, Deborah Nason tells us more:

Anyasi and Nwani decided to move ahead with their marketing plans after Space Data secured a contract with the United States military in 2007 to field-test the technology in Iraq and Afghanistan. The partners will operate through a consortium that is now in the formation stages, which they call Spaceloon.

The technology raises hydrogen-filled weather balloons, serving in effect as satellite substitutes, to an altitude between 80,000 and 100,000 feet. As individual users contact the balloons via modem, the balloons bridge them to a nearby Earth-bound network operations center (NOC), which in turn connects to various Internet gateways.

“Network operation centers are located close to a fiber optic cable — say, in Lagos or Accra — and a signal is sent back and forth to the [balloon] in near space,” Anyasi says.

By tapping into countries with fiber optic technology, Spaceloon intends to buy cheap access in the oceanfront capital cities of Africa for resale wirelessly to the interior.

Spaceloon will concentrate its initial efforts in four countries, which run roughly east to west on a similar latitude — from westernmost Sierra Leone to Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria. The company is seeking subsidies from the governments to prove the concept, followed by plans for a massive rollout as soon as possible.

Transmission speed will depend on the customer’s line of sight and the amount of bandwidth purchased, though Anyasi says download speeds should match or exceed those of satellite Internet solutions. Corporate customers, for example, can pay for a dedicated daily balloon that will deliver speeds up to 10 Mbit/s. Families, on the other hand, could opt for a budget-friendly plan of about 300 kbit/s. That’s not super fast, but it would be the first affordable option ever available to some African residents.

Anyasi says bandwidth can be extended: “In busy times, we can simply send up more balloons.”

The balloons come down every 24 hours due to the limitations of battery life — and to keep them from floating into territories that don’t subscribe to the service. “You’re looking at a wide geographic area — there’s a wide jet stream at near space — and that allows balloons to keep on floating without stop,” Anyasi explains. “It’s cheap to bring them down, as balloons cost only about $50, and since they are equipped with a GPS, it is easy to locate them and reuse them.”

Spaceloon will be the first ISP option available to the African mass market (outside the largest cities) without huge up-front costs. Currently, customers wishing fixed-line Internet access must either purchase a VSAT for as much as $10,000 or procure a personal wireless tower and roof-mounted dish for about $1,000.

Spaceloon customers would need only buy a locally made satellite dish for about $10, a regular modem, and connection to the service. Monthly pricing will be at least half the cost of all current options, according to Anyasi.

The impact on Africa’s Internet industry could be enormous.

Besides providing Internet access to previously unserved markets in city outskirts and rural regions, the technology would allow mobile phone operators to offer wireless modems to their customers. (Currently there are about 320 million mobile phone users in Africa.) To this end, Spaceloon is in discussions with large wireless providers Mobile Telephone Networks (MTN) and Vodafone, which each have a large business presence in a number of African countries.

The concept is simple, but the implications are massive. As Anyasi says, “Anyone, anywhere can get [wireless] Internet access. All you need is access to the sky and you have reception.”

The comments on the article are also interesting, especially this answer to a query by Timothy Anyasi:

I will answer your questions point for point and perhaps we can move on to solving the immeditate needs.

Telecommunication is not a cheap enterprise especially in Africa. You really have no idea what it cost to run a single cell tower in Africa. So I will share that info with you.

  • First you need to shell out $200,000 minimun to build a tall enough cell tower ( enough to buy 4,000 balloons – 6,000 with mass production. enough balloons for 11yrs daily launch of a single balloon)
  • Secondly – Electricity infrastracture is very poor so cell towers need there own $5,000 power generators, that needs to be fueled and maintained. I will not go into the environmental impact of burning fossil fuel. Compare this with our rechargable batteries and we will be using solar panels in the near future.
  • Thirdly – security personnel need to be posted to each cell tower to protect the generators. if the generators are stolen, so goes the service.
  • finally – I think you also need transportation to haul gas and personnel to these cell towers
You made mention of how much the access point cost. Hello? all internet service providers have access points.
Also our devices will not be stolen for 3 reasons
  1. there is no market for it ( same reason cell relayers are hardly stolen)
  2. We pay people to return if found
  3. we set what time, location they land and have gps to know exactly where they landed. This means we are usually the first to get to it.
Any object at 80,000ft has a coverage area of a little more than size of New Jersey.
Payloads are assembled parts, so usually all parts do not fail at once. But on average, a payload on average runs for at least a few years
with a few hundred balloons, we got the whole continent well served, compared to 20,000+ cell towers
We work within the jet stream in near space, if the current is eastbound we launch from the west. get the picture?
NOC does not have to be in the foot print of a particular balloon. We create a network mesh in the sky and do relays.
Also hydrogen is cheap and pretty safe to transport and can be stored in tanks at launch locations. we pay farmers to help us launch the payloads.
Number of NOC depends on demand pattern and spread of our subscribers.
bandwidth capability of each balloon depends on number of users within it’s footprint. We use higher payload for denser areas.
We monitor, the coverage area of each balloon from the NOC and since the wind speed is fairly consistent and predictable there is only a slow drift and we launch new balloons once we notice a gap in coverage, is about to happen. Also we can steer a balloon in a desire direction.
On the issue of failure, more than $80m has been invested to get this technology to where it is right now. And the US military definately will not buy into this if it was some crap. All technology must go from small scale to large, so why is this any different? And let us know how to raise the $100b to run fiber optics through half of Africa. until then, we will make do with a $100m solution.
Lastly, please do not preach to me, how ignorance is cheaper than education. We are interested in bridging the digital divide. Obama won simply becuase there was internet in the US. remove the internet and there is no Obama. So what is your point?
Btw thanks for your questions.