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MOMBASA, Kenya — East Africa took a big step toward joining the wired world Thursday with the launch of the first undersea fiber optic cable linking Europe to one of the world’s poorest regions.

MOMBASA, Kenya — East Africa took a big step toward joining the wired world Thursday with the launch of the first undersea fiber optic cable linking Europe to one of the world’s poorest regions. Telecoms companies SEACOM and Cisco Systems said in a statement that Thursday’s start of broadband services will make fast Internet cheaper and more accessible in places like Kenya. SEACOM’s Brian Herhily says the launch marks the "dawn of a new era for communications between the continent and the rest of the world." The 17,000-kilometer (10,625-mile) cable allows information to be sent at speeds of 1.28 terabytes per second, fast enough to stream high-definition video. It connects Djibouti, Madagascar, Mozambique, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania to India and Europe. Southern and Western Africa already have broadband services. As the West has grown used to taking streaming video and Internet phone calls for granted, Africa has remained far behind. The Indian Ocean’s east African seabed is the only one in the world without a submarine fiber-optic cable, forcing the region to rely heavily on limited and expensive satellite links. The International Telecommunication Union sees businesses such as the Internet cafes as leading the growth in Internet use and services in Africa. The union, a U.N. agency that tracks telecommunications trends, says there is potential for more growth because Africa has registered almost double the global average growth in Internet use between 2003 and 2008 — 30.6 percent for Africa compared to 17 percent for the world. "Levels of home computer ownership and Internet access are extremely low in most of Africa and will remain so for years to come. Higher levels of ICT access will only be achieved through public facilities such as community access centers, Internet cafes and schools," said the ITU in its 2009 annual trends and statistics report for Africa. In anticipation of the growth ITU forecasts, Mambo Mindila says in the coming months he will increase the number of terminals in his Internet cafe in downtown Mombasa, Future Online Technologies, to 50 from 35 and fit each one with a webcam and headphones. But he remains a bit skeptical about the hype in the Kenyan media. "If the high speed Internet comes, we hope to get what they are talking about," said Mindila. At least four projects to land a submarine cable in Mombasa have been in the pipeline for two years but have missed deadlines. "We hope to get the speeds up and we hope the prices will come down as they are telling us," Mindila said. Journalists were able to stream video and audio clips from the Mombasa launch venue Thursday. An Associated Press reporter was able to test the connection’s speed to confirm the broadband connection in Mombasa. Organizers also streamed via video an address by neighboring Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete in that country’s commercial capita, Dar es Salaam. Kikwete said his government plans to extend the existing fiber optic cable network in the country to reach about 10,680 kilometers (6,600 miles) within a year so that a Tanzanian will, for example, be able to apply online for a passport, get an acknowledgment and receive the passport in the post in a matter of days. Broadband "will reduce the need for someone traveling. It will reduce the people-to-people contact. And above all, the highest benefit of all, it will reduce corruption. It is really a great moment for Tanzania," said Kikwete. SEACOM’s connection to India and Europe will be through cables operated by Tata Communications, one of the world’s largest cable operators. A rival cable project, the East African Marine Systems, has failed to meet its own self-imposed March deadline but is expected to be ready in the coming months. A third project, the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable Systems, has extended its deadline to next year, but it is the most ambitious, aiming to connect 22 eastern, central and southern African countries to the rest of the world. ______ Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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