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High-speed internet reaches Uganda

A new cable connecting the East African coast with high-speed internet networks has finally made it to Uganda, but what could have been a windfall for an entire nation has been stalled by a lack of basic infrastructure.

A bundle of cut fiber-optic cables

The fiber-optic cable reached Africa in July 2009

An internet revolution is sweeping Uganda. In December, the first connections between the capital Kampala and the global broadband network went live, thanks to a submarine fiber-optic cable that links to broadband networks in India and Europe.

Since then, the East African nation has been in an e-frenzy as excited locals begin exploring all that the web has to offer, from downloading music to watching films online. Many Ugandans are euphoric, but for some the new cable offers fresh disappointments: a lack of telephone cables means high speed internet will remain out of reach for most Ugandans.

For those already hooked up, however, the 17,000-kilometer (10,563 mile) long broadband cable – known as the Seacom – is a boon. Grace Natabaalo, a web designer who works for the online department of the Ugandan newspaper Monitor, is one of the Seacom's latest converts.

She realizes that Uganda is no where near European speed, but compared the cable makes the internet lightning quick compared to how it used to be. As if to demonstrate, she clicks on a video clip on her screen; within seconds, the clip is downloaded.

“Back then, you would download something overnight, leave the computer on and find it downloaded in the morning, after twelve hours of downloading … you could never watch this!”

Since gaining access to the higher speed internet, Natabaalo's newspaper relaunched its website, which now incorporates previously unheard-of features like picture galleries and a video section.

Map showing the Seacom cable's path from Europe and India to Africa

The Seacom cable is slowly working its way through Africa

Opening Uganda to the world

Though the Seacom cable was officially launched in East Africa mid-2009, broadband access has only begun to trickle through to Uganda over the past few weeks. The new connection allows a much faster data transfer of 200 kilobytes per second, allowing an increasing number of Ugandans to take advantage of the features Natabaalo and her colleagues have already discovered.

For Constantine Bitwayiki, the improved web access is cause for celebration. Bitwayiki, the Ugandan president's advisor on internet issues, has big ideas about ways the new technology could be harnessed to overhaul administrative procedures.

School children in Uganda

High-speed internet will give Ugandan children access to the world

Bitwayiki believes that greater internet use in Government and private firms could be used to improve efficiency and even tackle corruption. High speed internet could also prove invaluable for ordinary Ugandans when it comes to basic tasks like getting a driving permit, which for many involves traveling long distances to the capital.

“I'd just need to do some basic form-filling online, if I have to pay then I go to the nearest bank and I pay, if [a picture is needed] then I send a picture online, and then my driving permit is delivered.”

Ugandan Minister for Trade and Industry Kahinda Otafire is equally optimistic. He hopes the improved connections may also entice foreign investors into the country. Otafire's vision for Uganda is one of an outsourcing hub for the rest of the world.

“The best English is spoken in East Africa, and particularly in Uganda,” he said. “We've got a lot of educated people; we've got a lot of trained manpower, so I don't see why we don't engage in outsourcing and getting in touch with the rest of the world.”

Infrastructure holds things back

But not everyone is convinced. So far, only government departments, the University of Kampala and some major companies, like the newspaper Monitor, are connected to broadband. The rest of the country must make do with a far slower connection, and for most Ugandans, internet cafés remain the only way to get online.

Ugandans lined up waiting to vote

The wait for the internet continues for many Ugandans

Daniel Biranda, Planning Director at the University of Kampala's computer sciences faculty, does not expect big changes in the near future.

“You know, people are talking about the internet. They are excited. But they don't know the technology.”

In the early 1990s, Biranda became the first Ugandan to program a Ugandan website. Today, he is looking for ways to connect villages outside the capital to the high-speed broad band cable and he says the key missing ingredient is the humble telephone cable.

“In, say, Stuttgart, every building [can have] internet, simply because there is a telephone line. But the buildings we have in town, they have electricity, but they don't have telephone lines.”

Because of that, the cost of connecting to the broadband network is expensive, and could easily outweigh the financial opportunities offered by a higher-speed connection, Biranda said.

“Will that internet café generate something like the $3000 in a month [to cover the costs]? It can't.”

There is a simple explanation for all of this. In Uganda, as in many developing countries, there has never been an extensive net of landline phones. They simply skipped that step and went right to mobile phones.

And beyond the capital, little infrastructure exists already that could be used to easily set up internet connections. This means that for the majority of Ugandans, high speed internet access at home may not be a reality for years to come.

Author: Simone Schlindwein (skt)
Editor: Mark Mattox

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