A tale of two cables
A few months, I was fortunate enough to meet up with Rick Perry, head of international network planning at telecomms company Cable & Wireless. What I learned from Rick surprised me: that the laying of an undersea fibre-optic cable isn’t just an impressive feat of engineering and financing, but also a process fraught with political tension, intrigue and high drama.
After all, he pointed out, an undersea cable can, in most cases, only be laid if a consortium of competing telecomms operators can set aside ferocious commercial rivalries and work together to fund, install and maintain it. At the same time, they must often work with the leaders of developing nations where political risk and regulatory complexity are a fact of life.
“A lot of games are played. Getting all the parties involved to agree on a single paragraph in the necessary documentation can take a whole day. Just getting a consortium together in the first place is a task in itself,” Rick told me. (For more on our conversation, see my profile of Rick, which appeared in the Financial Times in June).
Rick’s words to me on the huge problems involved in delivering fibre-optics to developing regions of the world came to mind again when I visited Nairobi in late June, as the guest of Kencall, Kenya’s first international call centre company.
Kenya has long been impeded in the outsourcing industry by poor communications links to the rest of the world. At present, companies such as Kencall are forced to rely on satellite systems. While Kencall chief executive Nicholas Nesbitt insisted to me that call quality is pretty good over satellite when we met at the company’s Nairobi headquarters, he also acknowledged that this is a turn-off for many prospective clients in the US and UK. “We’ve had companies walk away from us when they’ve heard we use satellite,” he said.
As soon as Kencall can take advantage of fibre-optics, it will leap at the opportunity. “That will take the call-quality issue off the table entirely, enabling Kencall to compete on a level playing field with any other outsourcing provider in the world,” Nick said.
Kencall is already preparing to make the jump, because two fibre-optic cable systems - the East Africa Martime System (TEAMS) and SEACOM systems - could be about to transform Kenya lives on an almost unprecedented scale.
In fact, the SEACOM system was ‘switched on’ today (for more on this, see news story, ‘East Africa goes fibre optic’). Both systems, however, have faced considerable challenges along the way and will likely face more in future. When I met Jean-Louis Parmentier, chief operating officer of Seacom (a consortium of private investors) at dinner in Nairobi last month, he related to me how the company’s cable ships had recently been attacked by Somali pirates (also reported in this Team Seacom blog entry).
A fierce rivalry already exists between his organisation and that running TEAMS (a joint venture between the Kenyan government, Abu Dhabi-based mobile operator Etisalat, and a handful of local telecoms and internet companies), which has led to much public sniping in the past year (although a future price war between the two would clearly be good news for Kenya corporates and consumers).
And it will still be months before either cable system is fully operational and connected to Kenya’s national fibre infrastructure, which itself needs serious upgrading work.
With those tasks out of the way, however, the impact of lower-cost, higher bandwidth connectivity will be enormous - not just for companies like Kencall and the people they employ, but for all Kenyans.
President Mwai Kibaki has ordered a radical revamp of the government’s ICT infrastructure, with the goal of making government departments more accessible to the population via the Internet. By contrast, his predecessor, Daniel Arup Moi, banned computers from government offices, I was told by Dr Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications.
Above all, more reliable, low-cost connectivity will also allow a far greater proportion of the Kenyan population to get online, delivering incalculable social and economic benefits, and it is to be hoped, bridging the ‘digital divide’ that currently exists between them and their contemporaries in more prosperous nations.