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How high-speed internet access is changing Tanzania

The installation of underwater telecommunications cables beginning in 2009 and a US$200-million government backed rollout of 10 000km of national backbone, has seen the cost of Internet connectivity in Tanzania drop to as little as 15 US cents a day on a prepaid service.

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SEACOM Tanzania’s managing director, Anna Kahama-Rupia, says that the reduced rate represents a drop of thousands of percent in the cost of Internet bandwidth in the country over the past three to four years.

Before 2009 only larger businesses could afford access to broadband connectivity in the form of dedicated fixed lines costing between US$5 000 to US$10 000. Internet access for an ordinary private citizen was almost unheard of.

Fast forward to today and Tanzanians are paying as little as US$15 a month for high-speed mobile web access, leading to transformative effects on entrepreneurship, social life and education in the country.

The University of Dar Es Salaam was paying US$10 000 a month for a 13Mbps satellite connection. Now, SEACOM has linked it to the Internet for a fraction of the price and with enough bandwidth to support richer Web apps than the university could before. Schools in remote, under serviced areas can now be reached with e-learning initiatives at an affordable cost.

Government has embraced telecommunications as part of a wider strategy to deliver electronic services including education, healthcare, and e-government to the people. It plans to do so through telecentres spread throughout the country, says Kahama-Rupia.

With the arrival of SEACOM, international bandwidth has risen from 300 Mbps to 10 Gigabits helping bring more of Tanzania’s 50 million people and its landlocked neighbouring countries online. It makes Tanzania somewhat of a technology and communications hub for the region. Recently, the state-owned Tanzania Telecommunication Company was awarded a US$6.7 million deal to supply 1 244 Mbps of internet bandwidth into Rwanda.

There is a flurry of innovation underway in Tanzania’s telecommunications market, thanks to lighter regulation of the market and the new national and international cables. Mobile networks have turned themselves into major data players, innovating with services such as voice-over-IP, video messaging and video calling.

African telecommunications operator Smile Telecom recently launched mobile broadband services including live video chat and TV streaming following its deployment of the first commercial LTE 800 Mhz network in Africa.

The impact on Tanzanian consumers and businesses has been remarkable. Before mid-2009, Internet cafes with high access costs were the only viable way for SMEs and ordinary consumers to use the Web, and even corporates and educational institutions had to strictly ration bandwidth, says Kahama-Rupia.

Now, SMEs are trading on the Web, relying on instant messaging, and even using multimedia Web applications for the first time. Tanzania has become more attractive to large multinationals looking to invest, now that a sound communications backbone is in place. For consumers, social media, mobile banking and other applications have become a part of everyday life.

“The opportunities this has created – economic and otherwise – are enormous. There is reason to believe that we are just getting started. With only an estimated 2.5% of the population having access to the Internet, there is plenty of scope for growth,” Kahama-Rupia says.

According to the World Bank’s Economy Rankings for 2012, Tanzania is ranked 14th of 43 countries in sub-Saharan Africa for doing business.

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