A new high-speed undersea cable connecting East Africa with the rest of the world is poised to go live, Kenya’s top internet official has told the BBC.
The launch of the government-backed East African Marine System (Teams) comes as providers face a backlash over slow connection speeds and high prices.
Internet providers have increased speeds and lowered costs since the Seacom cable went live in August.
But users say services still remain too expensive for most ordinary Kenyans.
Senior government official Bitange Ndemo said there was evidence that some internet service providers (ISPs) were “fleecing the public”.
Almost two months after the first high-speed cable made landfall, the highest residential internet speed offered by Kenya’s largest ISP remains capped at one megabit per second (Mbps).
That speed is available only at night and at weekends, for an annual cost of $1,440 (£860). The average Kenyan annual wage is about $800, the UN estimates.
Until late July, East African internet users were forced to pay for connections routed through expensive satellite connections.
Uptake was slowed by costs and business competitiveness was hampered by the delay in sending data from one point to another via satellite.
East Africa Cables
• Seacom is the first fibre optic cables to land in East Africa
• Links region to Europe, India and South Africa
• Cables have a capacity of 1280 Gigabits per second (Gbps)
• Other cables, including Teams and Eassy, expected to come online soon but with the imminent availability of the 1.28 terabits per second Teams connectivity, business figures, ISPs and the Kenyan government now insist that high-speed, low-cost internet is just around the corner.
Links are being completed to other East African nations, “digital villages” are being built in rural areas, and the speeds on offer are increasing, albeit slowly.
“The cable is here, it is functional, and they are selling capacity,” Bitange Ndemo told the BBC.
However, some in Nairobi feel that the cables themselves were over-hyped.
“I thought the cable would land and the next week we would have fast internet at home,” said Ken Kasima, a developer for the successful crowdsourcing service Ushahidi.
Speaking at a cafe in the basement of a Nairobi shopping centre where fellow developers and programmers meet to use a free wi-fi connection, Mr Kasima said the price of his 512kbps internet connection was preventing him working effectively at home.
His connection, like much of Kenya’s personal internet in a country without a significant landline telephone network, is delivered by a mobile phone operator via a 3G dongle connected by USB. A top-up card gives him 1GB of data use for a fee of 2,500 Kenyan shillings (£20; $33).
At that price, Mr Kasima insists he needs to carefully control what he does online in an effort not to waste his credit and his money. Even if the connection allowed it - which it barely does - listening to music or watching video online is not sensible.
“When you take it in comparison to what you’re doing, it’s
a lot (of money), trust me. It’s like spending a million to buy a wheelbarrow,” Mr Kasima said.
Perhaps surprisingly, the managing director of one of Kenya’s most prominent ISPs agrees with part of Mr Kasima’s analysis.
Jonathan Somen of Access Kenya told the BBC that some in the communications industry were guilty of making unwise pronouncements before the cables landed.
But Mr Somen - whose company is a shareholder in Teams - freely admitted that his products were aimed at business users and “high-end” residential customers, pointing out that Kenya needs major and costly investment to build a modern telecoms infrastructure.
“A lot of companies, ourselves included, have made significant investments in international and local infrastructure to deliver the new bandwidth,” Mr Somen said.
“The more people get connected the more the economies of scale will kick in and prices will come down, but you can’t expect fibre to land and that’s the answer to all of our prayers.
“You have got to go through the stages to build up the infrastructure and the content.”
His attitude is at odds with the approach of Bitange Ndemo, who called for those companies with investments to pay off to lower their prices to attract new customers.
“In Africa the argument is always that there are fewer customers so there is a need to charge a high premium,” he said.
“That is what annoys me, because you need to have low prices to get more people.”
On the outskirts of Nairobi, though, one place where prices have fallen is KenCall, an outsourcing company which says data costs have shrunk by 90% since Seacom went online.
Where the company previously paid $3,000 per megabyte of data via satellite, it now pays just $300, operations director Eric Nesbitt said.
As a firm which routinely deals with foreign clients and tries to offer Africa as a viable business alternative to clients in
Europe, the US and beyond, that cost reduction is critical.
“We are now on equal terms with the rest of the world,” Mr Nesbitt said, predicting that Kenya would now be just three years behind a country like the UK in adopting the latest technology.
Adverts around Nairobi seem to back Mr Nesbitt’s analysis. Billboards promoting digital TV packages and internet bundles loom large over the city. Internet TV is on the way.
For Bitange Ndemo, the opportunities offered by the new connections are virtually unlimited.
“We have just opened our market from 37 million to six billion,” he said. “We can become players if we work with a purpose. Africa can only succeed if we think that way.”