Zimbabwe: Fibre Optic Internet cables will change lives

HARARE – Expectations are high in Zimbabwe following news that the landlocked southern African state is on the verge of being wired to the rest of the world through an undersea cable.

The cable link forms the nerve centre of a $22.7 million Information and Commutations Technology (ICT) broadband infrastructure that will connect to the sea through Mozambique, and thence worldwide. “The work has been completed, including the laying of the cables,” Nelson Chamisa, the minister of information and communication technology, told The Zimbabwean this week referring to the 261 km fibre optic cable linking Harare to the eastern border city of Mutare, which will be commissioned in a few weeks.

By 2014 the country will be internationally networked, with about 1 340 km of cables, carrying massive amounts of mobile phone, television, internet and other telecommunication signals. Vast job opportunities will open up while government bureaucracy, costs of internet access and doing business will be lowered, say experts.

Chamisa aims to see the country “regain the missed opportunities and neglected advantages of the past decade” by ensuring Zimbabwe’s ICT networks are “available and affordable anywhere and anytime” as outlined in his 2010 to 2014 strategic plan. For many enterprising Zimbabweans, like schoolteacher Nyasha Kanedengu, the good news could not have come at a better time. He already dreams of setting up an internet café at his Mberengwa village.

“To some people information is power, to us it means cash,” he said on learning that the minister would also deliver the project to rural areas. Software developers, students, internet fanatics, broadcasters and other sectors are hoping to cash in. It also has brought immense relief to players in the sector such as giant cell-phone service provider Econet Wireless. Of late the company was being taken to task by customers who felt its new mobile internet service was a rip-off, compared with cheaper rates in neighbouring countries.

But expensive broadband connectivity is due to the Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT), the satellite system currently in use. It involves transmission of signals by ground antennas rented from international companies at a very high cost, which are far less effective than the cheaper fibre optic. Figures collected by the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) show that in 2008, Zimbabwe had the least mobile phone penetration rate in SADC countries, with only 1.65 million subscribers.

Growth in the ICT sector almost doubled to15.2 percent in 2009, from 8 percent in 2000, according to Finance Minister Tendai Biti.

Recent estimates by the International Telecommunications Unions (ITU) put the number of Zimbabwe’s internet users as of December 2009 at about 1.5 million, some13 percent of the population. This was up from merely 50 000 users or 0.3 percent of the population in 2000. Industry experts saw this as a great achievement, considering that earlier the Global Information Technology Report 2007-08 ranked Zimbabwe in 125th position on the Networked Readiness Index (NRI), out of 127 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum.

Research has also proven that a10 percent increase in ICT penetration would increase a country’s gross domestic (GDP) by an average 1.4 percent. “The completion of the fibre optic cabling across the length and breadth of Zimbabwe is a must do,” said Finance Minister Tenda Biti. A study conducted in 2008 by the Midlands State University and the National University of Science and Technology on the use of e- learning at Zimbabwean universities, found that only 20 percent of lecturers had access to computers, which they also shared with their students in lecture rooms.

As an answer to some of the country’s e-learning challenges, Biti has availed US$1 million towards the sourcing of computers for primary and secondary schools across all the provinces. But with women accounting for 80 percent of the rural folk, the ICT revolution should not leave them out, according to a 2009 report by gender group E-Knowledge for Women in Southern Africa (EKOWISA).

“There is need to focus on people, not technologies, and on what people can do with technology,” said Margaret Zunguze, EKOWISA’s executive director and an author of the report. As for television broadcasting, Zimbabwe is racing against time. The SADC regional bloc has set December 2013 as the cut-off date for all member states to migrate from analogue to digital broadcasting, as part of boosting socio-economic development and regional integration.

The bloc says harnessing ICT should be the catalyst to achieve this, and if Chamisa’s vision has its way, Zimbabwe will not be found lagging behind again.

Source – The Zimbabwean by JUSTICE ZHOU