Light at the end of the bandwidth tunnel?

Languages are a funny thing and unless you’re careful you can say something something in your language and mean something totally unintended in another.

One example is the Polar Operational Environmental Satellite Programme, which is a joint effort between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United Kingdom and France. The POES Programme’s name wouldn’t even raise a eyebrow at an American boardroom table but, for those of us who speak a bit of Afrikaans, it gives rise to a delighted chortle.

And so on to the more serious business of the week, which concerns the Seacom undersea cable which is currently under construction and which will provide an additional link from South Africa to the Internet. I was reminded about its imminent arrival recently when I read an article on the establishment of the cable’s South African terminus at Mtunzini on the KwaZulu Natal north coast.

The cable is due for completion by the end of June 2009 and will provide a fibre -optic link from Europe to East and Southern Africa and South Asia. There has already been quite considerable excitement amongst the ranks of the IT press about the cable and what is commonly believed will be a dramatic decrease in the price of bandwidth to South African consumers.

I recently received a newsletter Seacom detailing the progress that has been made on the project and I must say it does sound exciting. CEO Brian Herlihy extols the benefits that Africa is going to reap from the arrival of the cable and promises improved quality of service for international calling and web browsing.

The newsletter also carries an interesting interview between Herlihy and Tami Hultman, who admits some people are saying that the price of broadband won’t come down as dramatically as hoped. He says that the cost of international bandwidth is only one of the three factors which will influence the price paid by consumers.

The other factors are the network infrastructure in each country and the connections, such as ADSL, WiFi or mobile technologies, which cover the last mile between between that infrastructure and the user at home or in the office. Seacom doesn’t have control over the first two elements but, as far as international bandwidth goes, that they are promising to bring the price down by 90-95%.

We’re going to have to wait and see what the various parties who are going to connect us to this lovely cheap bandwidth will do. I veer between optimism and bitter experience of the SA business tradition of parity pricing which has seen us with three mobile providers and not one iota of genuine competition between them.

Maybe I am being a bit pessimistic and things will turn out for the best for us South African consumers for a change. If an upbeat press release I received last week from Neotel is anything to go by, maybe we really can look forward to reduced prices.

According to a Ajay Pandey, CEO of Neotel, the next few months will see a new age in telecommunications in South Africa. He said that the cable will ensure a flood of extra bandwidth and drive down prices to an internationally comparable level, whatever he means by that.

At the moment, I am paying R152 per month for my ADSL connection and R699 per 10 GB of bandwidth that I use. The Neo-Connect Prime offering is currently R599 a month and also includes 10 GB of of bandwidth usage. Other ISPs, apart from the cellphone companies, are in the same sort of ballpark and it is going to be really interesting to see just how much less we’ll be paying after the end of June.

The question will only be answered in the fullness of time and, hopefully, also the question of when Neotel will start rolling out their consumer service in my area. I have asked the oracle at Neotel but I’m waiting on the answer to that one as well…

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