On July 2nd, the Main One Cable company finished construction on a 4000 mile fiber optic cable linking Nigeria to Western Europe. The new pipe promises 20 times the capacity of sub-Saharan Africa’s entire satellite network. The Main One is one of 10 new cables being laid to Africa which promise to drive down costs and expand access.

Three days later as if to highlight the challenges that still remain the Seacom fiber optic cable connecting east Africa to India and Europe failed. The disruption brought connection speeds in Tanzania and Kenya to a crawl while Uganda and Rwanda switched back to more expensive satellite connections. Submarine cables are difficult to repair and vulnerable to accident or malfeasance. In 2008 large parts of the Middle East and Asia were left without connections after an anchor severed the FLAG cable in the Mediterranean.

The challenges don’t end once a cable is laid; extending the connection to rural locations is difficult and costly. Copper wire used for low bandwidth lines is frequently stolen withSouth Africa alone estimated to lose $1 billion dollars because of replacement costs. These examples highlight both the potential and vulnerability of an increasingly sophisticated communications infrastructure.

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