Tuesday, July 17, 2012

African Fiber

Author: Christopher Guess

Connecting Africa To The Digital 21st Century

SEACOM Fiber Optic Cable
In most industries it’s the giants that build infrastructure. These creations, whether by law or by kindness, are then used by others for their own purposes. Oil companies build roads to ship out crude, which are then used by farmers to move livestock and crops; and airports and runways that were built for passenger flights are rented by freight companies to fly packages.  The Internet is another beast all together. Tech companies are small and none, with the exception of Google, has the sheer amount of money to even contemplate building the sort of Internet connections that are almost universally required today.

Africa’s working on it, and getting a bit closer every year.  When last I was in Tanzania, in 2008, Dar-es-Salaam had internet that made the free dial-up I used to get around the America Online child filters seem blazing. The compound where I was staying had a bookshelf that was running thin, so I “obtained” an e-book of The Lord of the Rings from online. The download took me the better part of three days to get what ended up being only 125 megabytes, or about the size of 30 full-resolution digital photos.

I apparently was not the only one frustrated by this tortoise of a connection. In 2010 Eastern Africa finally received their first industrial-level Internet hookup to the rest of the world when a major deep-sea cable, named EASSY (Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System) went online. Undersea cables are what make the Internet work.  They connect continents and can transmit enough data to move an entire hard drive in tenths of seconds. Before EASSY the only way to get to the rest of the Internet from Eastern Africa was piping a signal into space and bouncing it off of a geosynchronous satellite.

Despite sounding futuristic, satellites are some of the slowest and least reliable ways to move data. Satellites communicate using electromagnetic waves, similar to radio waves, to communicate with the ground. The problem with this is that the speed of light can only go so fast, and while it may seem extremely quick, the signal takes much more time to get to space and back than it does to travel through physical cables.  Besides being slower, the amount of data that can be moved at any specific time - the bandwidth - is significantly smaller.  This isn’t a problem if you have your own personal system, but when every request you make gets put in a queue with every other request in the city or country, the wait time starts to add up substantially.

Crew works relentlessly to lay cable
The new EASSY cable, along with SEACOM, a smaller version, has helped to mitigate the problem of speedy Internet access quite a bit.  The pipe widened, but there is still only two of them.  The US has dozens of cables stretching from every border across the Atlantic and Pacific.  To illustrate the drawbacks of having too few Internet connections to the outside, I’ll use a few recent numbers from Google’s database.  As of April, even with both EASSY and SEACOM cables running for two years, the average time to load a web site in Kenya was 18.9 seconds and in Ghana it was 20.2.  Even in South Africa, the average load time was 12 seconds.  Compare this number to the US, where the average web site took 5.7 seconds to load, or China at 6.8 seconds of time.  Brazil was still faster, albeit barely, at 11.9 seconds of average load time.  This puts the time to load the New York Times or Xinhua – China’s major newspaper - at more than three times longer in Nairobi than in the US.

These might seem like numbers not worth fighting over.  But, it comes down to a lot more than seeing the most recent Gawker post.  Most of the services that a savvy internet user in Beijing, Paris, London or Mexico City would use daily take up much more data than a standard website.  Queuing up the newest Batman trailer (running time: 13 minutes, 26 seconds), in standard definition from YouTube, took me, from my apartment in Brooklyn, approximately 12 minutes and 45 seconds.  This was fine as a viewer, because as long as the buffering kept ahead of the video there were no interruptions.  Using the number from Google, it would take just over 43 minutes to download the same video on an average connection in Nairobi.  At this speed you have to download it ahead of time or watch a very choppy, barely streaming film. Who cares, it’s simply a Batman trailer, but even if what you’re download does not mean someone is in mortal peril, 30 minutes of sitting is a lot of wasted time.  When you aggregate this time over the course of a day’s worth of Google searches, or a week’s worth of making sure emails send, the economic toll of wasted work time piles on.

There is some push to put server farms, like those at Microsoft or Amazon’s clouds services, in Africa, but the obstacles are nearly insurmountable at the moment.  The capital investment to build such infrastructure is massive. In 2010, Facebook, just to run its own services, paid approximately $50 million. The engineering experience needed to keep the machines online and updated requires education that is rarely obtained south of the Sahara and north of Johannesburg.

Now, if the access issue is fixed and if the speed issue is conquered, the entire world’s infrastructure, all of a sudden, opens up to Africa.  Hosting your music in the US is fine if it can stream to Kinshasa at the same speeds a Premier League match streams to Pittsburgh.  There have already been steps in the right directions, but until the rest of the continent catches up with the rest of the world, good luck Skyping, much less serving up Instagram from Mombasa.

Christopher Guess is a journalist, photographer and tech entrepreneur based in Brooklyn, New York. Christopher writes about emerging innovations and individuals within Africa’s tech industry. Through his reporting, he seeks to highlight the successes and issues that emerging economies face when transitioning to knowledge based economies. He has reported extensively in the United States and internationally on humanitarian and economic issues. Eastern Africa became a specific point of interest for him while travelling and reporting in the area in 2008. In addition to his journalism, Christopher is the co-founder of two tech start-ups in New York City, giving him a distinct vantage point on developmental milestones and opportunities.

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