Rory Cellan-Jones

Africa's internet journey: Day One

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 14 Sep 09, 08:49 GMT

The first stop on our journey in East Africa was a nondescript building in an idyllic location looking out over the Indian Ocean. In fact, the Seacom Landing Station is worse than nondescript - it's the kind of building which Prince Charles might describe as a monstrous carbuncle, located right next to Mombasa's most imposing sight, Fort Jesus, built by Vasco da Gama in the 16th century.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

But maybe the identikit shed above the beach where the Seacom cable comes ashore may one day be seen as a historic site in its own right - the place where East Africa finally got a decent connection to the internet.

Mahmoud Noor, an impressive young Kenyan telecoms engineer who runs the station, was immensely proud of it.

"It's a privilege to be part of history, to be giving the first real broadband connection to the East African region" he told me. "As Obama says, we are on the right side of history."

He lifted a manhole cover to show me the cable, which looks pretty flimsy, stripped of the armour which protects it on the floor of the ocean. But this is just one link in a network stretching from Mumbai to Kenya, and along the cost of East Africa, and bringing the fast internet here for the first time.
Mahmoud Noor
Then Mahmoud took me on a tour of his small empire - no more than a few prefab rooms housing servers, equipment installed by the internet service providers who will now link customers up to the cable, and, most important, a couple of standby generators.

"Power is one of our biggest problems," he admitted, explaining that electricity rationing meant that you could see around three power cuts a week at the moment. The generators would allow them to keep on running for three months.

In the transmission room, Mahmoud sketched a few sums on a piece of paper to show me the increase in capacity promised by the cable. He said it could carry 114 million voice calls simultaneously - and that was around 240 times the previous capacity of Kenya's telecoms system. This country, like the rest of East Africa, has been dependent on satellite links to hook it up to the outside world - and that's made getting online both expensive and slow.

So the cable - and others now arriving on this coast - could make a huge difference. But what I hadn't quite realised until I got here was how much all of this depended on the mobile phone networks. Seacom cableThe mobile industry is visible everywhere, from the huge adverts for the two main operators, Safaricom and Zain, to tiny shops selling mobile access or offering the chance to use M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer scheme.

I'd heard that far more people here had access to a mobile phone than had bank accounts - but apparently it's also more common than access to fresh water.

And with the fixed line telephone system something of a national joke, mobile will be the route to the internet for most. So, despite the promise of a big leap in speeds, customers will be getting online via 3g phone networks linked to the new cable. A quick test on my laptop showed download speeds of around 256Kb - better than what was on offer before, but some way from broadband. And we've just passed a big advert offering a broadband service for 2,999 Kenyan shillings a month - that's around £27 which is way beyond the reach of most Kenyans.

It was Mahmoud Noor's infectious enthusiasm about the revolution the cable could bring which really struck me on my first day in East Africa, But now comes the hard bit - delivering on that promise for millions of Africans eager to be connected.


  • Comment number 1.


    Thanks for the excellent first update from Africa and the internet journey that you are embarking....

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 2.

    A mobile phone account is more common than fresh water. Disgusting and shows a lot about whats wrong in this world when we chase profits before basic requirements for living.

  • Comment number 3.

    'more common than fresh water. Disgusting." Sure that's for real. But access might just be one of the ways to correct that!

  • Comment number 4.

    This is an awesome story. Superb.

  • Comment number 5.


    I'm hoping so, I really do. I find it amazing the amount of help and money we throw there for water and food and the rewards we get back. Yet the phone companies can go there and...

    Still I think its a great idea for Rory to go travelling there to report on the technologies there, and its bound to be interesting and surprising. Personally I'd love to get a chance to do it.

  • Comment number 6.

    excellent would be interesting to read an article on how important mobile phones are in Africa in comparison to the problems miners in the DR Congo face in the mining of minerals for the phones that are now so crucial. The phones are now making many things better and easier all over the world, but to what cost?

  • Comment number 7.

    A fairly interesting story, but can we have some more technology news in the blog?

  • Comment number 8.

    Therefore, it is the right time to young Africans to engage in various arrays of activities, like political,social and economical issues of their country. I hope fast internet service will bolster civic participation and democracy in transition democracies in Africa. The whistle has keep playing.

  • Comment number 9.

    There is so much hype about how cellphone technology is making African countries better places. In some cases, yes, it makes things possible that would never have been possible without it. It also makes some things easier. But I have come to the conclusion that these cases are the exception. Mostly I think the 'revolution' just makes vast amounts of profit for the cellphone companies (largely from people who could be spending their money better), a lot of which goes straight out of the countries where it is earned. How about some reporting on that?

  • Comment number 10.

    Excellent. Everyone has a right to new technology and development and as long as whoever can pay why not ? Access to fresh water is another issue which maybe needs another enthusiast like Mahmud Noor !

  • Comment number 11.

    I would be interested to know whether the people have convenient access to facilities for getting online. My experience in South Africa is that home PC's are unaffordable for most so people spend hours stuck in traffic to get to an internet café. Using the analogy of installing a water main, the benefit is significantly lower if there are no taps available.

  • Comment number 12.

    "I'd heard that far more people here had access to a mobile phone than had bank accounts - but apparently it's also more common than access to fresh water."

    Thats aweful but believable. There are millions suffering from drought in Kenya.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    As a Kenyan In East Africa, I am fascinated by the rapid rate of popularity the Internet is gaining.
    Unfortunately, with the exception of Wananachi Online, all other Internet Service Providers are yet to keep their promise of lower charges for their service. Overall, I feel that 2010 will be a fantastic year for any Internet investment in East Africa.
    For example, Kenya alone has 2 million facebook members, and the number grows daily.
    Akinyi Adongo

  • Comment number 15.

    if you want to buy Cheap Louis Vuitton handbags, you have to

    visit louis vuitton
    stores to take a look at the latest louis vuitton discount

    which has many louis
    vuitton outlet handbags and is also the best Louis Vuitton

    Store as I know.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites