East Africa Tackles Telecom Snafu

People in countries like Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania rely on crucial undersea cables to keep them connected to the internet. A ship's anchor recently sliced one of those cables, so now web traffic is being re-routed to the company Seacom. Host Michel Martin talks with Seacom founder Brian Herlihy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are going to stay with news from Africa for a few more minutes. We are reminded that, in this country, many of us take high-speed electronic communication for granted.

For many people, mobile phones and the Internet are not a novelty or a luxury, but a necessity. So you can imagine what the impact has been in East Africa, when a ship dragging its anchor off the coast of the Kenyan port city Mombasa evidently severed a crucial underwater cable, and that has caused telecommunication slowdowns and outages in at least six countries, including Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.

It is reported to have been only the latest of several similar accidents in the region recently. Here to tell us more about all of this is Brian Herlihy. He is the founder and executive director - formerly CEO - of the company Seacom. That company launched the first of three new cables in East Africa, and most of the Internet and cell phone traffic is being rerouted to Seacom's cable right now.

Welcome to the program. I should say welcome back, since you're just back from East Africa.

BRIAN HERLIHY: Thanks, Michel. Great to be on your show.

MARTIN: So did you notice the effect of the accident while you were there? And if you didn't, what are other people experiencing?

HERLIHY: We did. I think we - like you said, we start to take for granted our dependency on Internet and telecommunication devices. And when the Internet stops working or when it slows down, we reach a huge level of frustration, and you could see that in the markets where I just was.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example. Like, what were you noticing? You're trying to, say, perhaps pay your hotel bill, took a long time, trying to get cell phone calls through, dropped calls.

HERLIHY: Yeah.

MARTIN: What were you seeing?

HERLIHY: It really comes down to, you know - when we say the Internet, we assume Google-type access of websites. It comes down to everything that you acquire that's not in Kenya or not in Rwanda itself. So all of the connectivity that is really international content-based you really can't get. And, for me, my emails are hosted in New York. So even getting something as simple as emails was a struggle for me.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about the technology? And if you could try to make it as simple as possible, because I think many people are surprised that any important region of the world is dependent upon cables. I mean, I think many people in this country - probably most people in this country, not all, think of this as a wireless word. And I don't think people think a lot more about the - kind of the physical infrastructure that is required.

HERLIHY: Yeah. We've become so dependent on our wireless devices, we forget that underlying all of those wired towers are fiber optics meshed like a spider web that are giving us this very reliable service. But, in Africa, we're still in the infancy of developing that spider web, and we still have a lot of point-to-point fiber optic connections that are connecting these towers, delivering to the wireless device.

And even on the international portion, which is based on submarine cables, you know, we still only have three cables in East Africa that are connecting to Europe and Asia, and those cables are very vulnerable. And vulnerable here in the case was a cable ship's anchor dragging.

MARTIN: Just these new cables alone are relatively recent. Do I have that right, that even this level of capacity goes back to 2009?

HERLIHY: Absolutely. Before Seacom was launched, which - you're right - was in July 2009, there was only two gigabits of capacity serving all of East Africa. Now, to put that in context, our office is on 47th and Park Avenue in New York, and I'm pretty sure that, in our block, there's more than two gigabits of capacity. So you had over...

MARTIN: Just on your block? Just on that block in New York?

HERLIHY: Exactly.

MARTIN: And that was the amount of capacity serving the entire region?

HERLIHY: Exactly. So now, in two short years, we've gone from two gigabits to over 120 gigabits, maybe even more today. It's growing very fast, over 100 percent per year. So you're starting to see emails, video streaming, different things that we, today, take for granted that weren't happening in two years are starting to happen now in Africa.

MARTIN: What is some of the impact of just the fact that this improvement in capacity to this point - what have you seen?

HERLIHY: It's tremendous. I'm an economist by training, and I think in terms of efficiencies. So information in Africa was always a commodity that was very valuable, because not many people had it. But as you get free access to information, you create huge efficiencies in the market, because people aren't able to hold that information from each other.

So you're seeing the opening up of markets from anything from micro-agricultural opportunities, to commodity exchanges, to more efficient banking, to more efficient governments, to even something simple, like walking into an airport. There's now electric immigration and visa process.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go - and thank you for taking the time when you - as we said, you're just back from the region, and you must still be actually jet-lagged. How long will it be before these disruptions are no more? Or how long will it take to fix this?

HERLIHY: Yeah. It would take about two to three weeks. To explain how it happens, you actually have to have a ship come in and find these cables that have been broken, and these cables are only about two inches in diameter. So although there is GPS telling them where the breaks are, they have to use a grappling hook to pick up the cable ends, and then they do a splicing process on the ship. You know, you're splicing fiber optic cables, which are only a few nanometers in diameter. It's a very tricky process, but it does happen, like I said, and there are experts at doing it, and I'm sure the ships are on their way to start the fixing process right now.

MARTIN: So, until then, online shopping - going to not be a lot of fun in the East African region. Right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HERLIHY: Correct.

MARTIN: That is Brian Herlihy. He is the founder and now executive director - formerly CEO - of Seacom. That's the company where most of the Internet traffic from East Africa is now being rerouted at the moment after an accident last week. And he joined us from our bureau in New York.

Brian Herlihy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HERLIHY: Thanks for having me on your show.

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