Ocean, Africa, ... and Football

Recently, I noticed a small press story announcing an underwater fiber optic cable linking Europe, India, and east Africa -- a few inches of type indicative of an astonishing advance in global communications.

Most of us are unaware of the number of such cables that snake across the ocean floor to link us via telephone, fax, television, data transfer, email, and Internet connection. We call Europe as if it was just down the road; we email Japan as if it was just across the bay. We take it all for granted and exploit the astonishing value of connection for our businesses and our personal endeavors.

But Africa! We envision an endless desert, poverty, an image of backwardness and isolation antithetical to the technology and obsessive communication in our own lives. Visiting Africa, of course, both denies and confirms this vision by the stunning juxtaposition of affluence with poverty, of entrepreneurial optimism with desperation and hopelessness.

In July, via a 17,000 kilometer submarine fiber optic cable, SEACOM, a company 77% owned by African investors, completed a global network between France, India, south and east Africa was completed and commissioned, linking London, Marseilles and Europe, Delhi and south Asia, with Johannesburg, Nairobi, Kampala, Kigali, and Addis Ababa. The cable has an enormous capacity for data transfer -- 1.2 terabytes per second -- to enable high definition TV, peer-to-peer networks, IPTV, and surging Internet demand at prices realistic for the African market.

The ownership structure varies for each segment of the cable, ensuring local ownership of the cable segments connecting individual countries and to comply with regulations in those countries. The cable backbone along the east coast of Africa and to India and Europe is owned by SEACOM. The segments connecting to individual countries are either 100% (South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, India, France) or 35% (Tanzania, Kenya) locally owned by local investors. A small group of international investors with no other telecommunication involvement in the individual countries constitute a minority share.

Initial investment was also provided by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, an international development agency dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship and building economically sound enterprises in the developing world. The Fund is active in 16 countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, Mali, Mozambique, Pakistan, Senegal, Syria, Tajikistan, Tanzania and Uganda.

Suddenly, for better or for worse, Africa is connected. The World Ocean Observatory, for example, can now link to teachers and students in African universities, schools, and environmental groups, heretofore almost impossible. We can now provide ocean curriculum, interact with classrooms in real time, and transfer distance-learning modules with ease to African ocean nations. The sea connects all things!

As importantly, there is now also bandwidth to meet the needs of the Confederations Cup and the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa, as well as the growing requirements of the economies in the countries served. I suppose it is fair to say that football and finance are international forces comparable to the connective power and community engagement of the ocean itself.