Thirteen years since Kenya welcomed its first ever fibre optic cable, the country has now unveiled a sixth submarine internet cable that promises to offer higher speeds, lower latency and broader bandwidth.

The launch of the Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe (Peace) cable on Tuesday comes at a time when the country’s internet economy is rapidly growing, thanks to digital transformation acceleration occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic.

As demand rises for cloud storage, heavy internet content streaming, e-commerce platforms, e-learning apps, telehealth systems, fintech innovation and online businesses, the new cable is expected to offer additional broadband to the national fibre backbone network.

The $399.9 million cable connects Africa to France and Pakistan through the Europe-Asia route, providing a direct connectivity to Asia which is expected to reduce communication delays between Africa and Asia.

Affordable mobile data

The launch is a partnership between Peace and Kenya’s most affordable mobile internet data provider Telkom, which creates optimism that mobile data could soon be more affordable. Kenya has the most expensive mobile data in East Africa according to the global Mobile Data Index.

But the 15,000 kilometre cable is expected to create more flexible digital connection options, including high-speeds of 200 Gbps per single wavelength with a total capacity of 192 Terabits per second, as well as stable and secure data access possibilities.

Speaking during the launch at Nyali, Mombasa, ICT and Youth Affairs Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru said Kenya was right inside the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) where demand for fast internet is at an all-time high.

“Right now, you can enjoy 5G data speeds at Uhuru Gardens. This will revolutionise how Kenyans consume the internet. 5G smartphone penetration in Kenya is growing. More online business opportunities will be unlocked by this cable,” he said.

Further, the continued growth in consumer demand for connectivity and data could unlock new markets for co-location data centers, content development networks and Over-the-Top service providers in the country, Peace Cable’s Chief Operating Officer, SUN Xiaohua said.

Stable data access

“Peace will bring more diversified digital connection options and provide high-speed, large-capacity and stable data access opportunities to Kenya,” he said.

Fiber optics or optical fibers, are long, thin strands of carefully drawn glass about the diameter of a human hair. The strands are arranged in bundles called optical cables.

Peace and Telkom are relying on them to transmit light signals over long distances. But at the transmitting source, the light signals are encoded with data.

So, the optical fiber transmits this data by light to a receiving end, where the light signal is decoded as internet. Therefore, fiber optics is a pipe to carry signals over long distances at very high speeds.

Telkom said the investment in submarine cables is of strategic importance to its business, where it views access to the Internet as a fundamental human right.

Chief executive of the telco Mugo Kibati said contributing to Kenya’s strategic evolution to become a digital economy is critical, especially through using the internet to improve peoples’ lives.

“This ultra-high capacity cable will assist Kenya and the region in meeting its current and future broadband capacity requirements as well as assist carriers in providing affordable services to Kenyans,” he said.

Mr Mugo added that the operator will create a future smart landing hub for the majority of the submarine cables in East Africa as it continues to provide cross-connections to all data, entering and exiting Kenya.

Six submarine cables

Telkom currently operates and maintains five of the six submarine cables that have landed in Kenya.

“We’re upgrading and expanding our 4G capacity in the Coast region, before moving into other areas across the country. This Sh14 billion nationwide rollout is part of our long- term network expansion strategy,” said Mr Kibati.

Former ICT Principal Secretary and chair of the Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence taskforce Prof Bitange Ndemo – who has witnessed all six cables land in Mombasa – said Kenya is now ready to take on global tech heavyweights in the digital economy.

“Broadband access is a human right. With these steps, we will even witness the launch of a seventh and eighth internet cable,” he said.

Peace, a Hong Kong-based cable network founded in 2018, said its second phase will see the cable extend to Singapore and Southern Africa, boosting bandwidth and connectivity from its current African landing point in Mombasa, all the way to South Africa, consequently opening new markets in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The East African Marine System (TEAMS) internet cable launched in June 2009, set the stage for the digital transformation that ‘Silicon Savannah’ now enjoys but the laying of more cables now places the country at the apex of internet penetration in Africa.

Since then, other internet cables landing in Mombasa have been the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy), the Lower Indian Ocean Network (LION), Seacom and the Djibouti Africa Regional Express 1 (DARE1).

Internet cables

Their respective speeds are 5.2 Tbps, 12.3 Tbps, 18.6 Tbps, 12 Tbps and 36 Tbps, and all serve to deliver an unprecedented amount of internet bandwidth in East Africa.

Kenya Power also uses internet cables to manage the national electricity grid and leases the excess capacity to Safaricom, Airtel, Liquid Telecom and Jamii Telecommunications.

Since launch in 2010, Kenya Power has cumulatively earned Sh3.02 billion from the fibre leasing business, in its 4,000-kilometre long cables.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) estimates a total of 1.1 million kilometers of fibre cables have been laid in Africa with 50 per cent of them being deployed by private Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).

MNOs are granted licenses to offer mobile communications services and have the right to deploy fiber to connect their towers and base stations for their backbone and backhaul needs.

About 40 per cent of all fiber optic cable in Africa, a staggering 450,000 kilometers, is publicly-owned according to IFC. This includes government networks, state-owned enterprises and utilities.

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