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NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Plans to lay an undersea fiber-optic cable off eastern Africa could be the beginning of the end of crackling long-distance calls, slow dial-up Internet connections and universities without e-mail.

Four projects are in the works to link 22 eastern, central and southern African countries to the world’s network of submarine cables and 21st century communications. They would enable cheaper international calls with no static and fast Internet access.

The first cable could be finished as early as March.

At the moment, the Indian Ocean’s eastern 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. As a result, countries along the coast and in its hinterland have some of the highest communications costs in the world.

Even though fiber-optic links would drive down communication costs for businesses and consumers, it also could be a big opportunity for entrepreneurs.

”We think in general that the high price of satellite communication is creating a high-price, artificially low-demand market and because of that we think there is pent-up demand,” Brian Herlihy, vice president of New York-based Herakles Telecom LLC, which is leading one of the projects.

A 2005 study by a U.N. task force found that 90 percent of calls between African countries are routed by satellite through Europe or North America at a cost of US$400 million a year. Direct calls would be cheaper, though the study did not say by how much.

The cost of laying the fiber-optic cable – stretching up to 8,000 miles (about 13,000 kilometers) along selected points in the Indian Ocean – is estimated to range from US$100 million to US$200 million. Individual countries will spend even more laying fiber-optic cables inland and connecting their networks to the submarine cable.

State-owned and private African telecommunications companies, the World Bank and other international financial institutions, governments and foreign private investors are funding the projects.

The oldest, the four-year-old Eastern Africa Submarine Cable Systems, or EASSy, was conceived by a group of East African businessmen in November 2002.

The cable can ”contribute to the expanding intra-Africa trade by providing better communication in the region,” Abiodun Jagun, a researcher in information communication technologies at the University of Manchester, said in a February paper.

Competition among companies rolling out the new cables could drive prices down even further and deliver results faster.

One project would not necessarily cancel another out – India, for example, has several submarine fiber-optic cables linking it with the international telecom infrastructure.

Ethiopia, the most populous country of the region, thinks the rival cables offer it choice and the opportunity to negotiate favorable prices.

”The more alternatives, the better,” said Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who leads the Horn of Africa nation of 77 million. The landlocked country will be linked to the undersea cable through neighboring Djibouti or Kenya.

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