Five East African countries are investing a combined US$400 million in terrestrial fiber optics for backbone cables that, when complete, will provide a vast network for Internet connectivity.

This fiber system, which will cover more than 15,600 kilometers, will link Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi and will create the largest interconnected region on the continent. The network will stretch from South Sudan in the north to Tanzania's border with Zambia and Malawi in the south and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the west.

The terrestrial network, dubbed the East Africa Backhaul System, will connect to the submarine fiber-optic cables on the East Africa coast.

In January, Rwanda completed work on its 2,300 km cable at a cost of $60 million. Korea Telecom (KT) laid the fiber. The cable covers the capital Kigali and provides connectivity to the country's borders with Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and DR Congo. It also covers all the four provinces, links into the main police headquarters, universities and other remote government and administrative offices.

Tanzania is continuing to lay its more than 10,000 km cable at a cost of approximately $170 million. Links to the main borders with Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are almost completed, according to John S. Nkoma, the director general of the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA).

Private operators in Tanzania must augment the cable to reach those areas that will not have been reached by the national backbone, said Nkoma, speaking in the Rwandan capital during the 18th Congress of the East Africa Communications Organisation (EACO), an umbrella body for the telecom regulators in the region.

Phase one of the project covers 7,000 km and the second phase will cover 3,000 km. Like other cables in the region, Nkoma said, the Tanzania network will be deployed by the government to promote e-governance, e-health, e-commerce and e- learning.

Burundi is currently laying a 1,300-km cable at a cost of $10.5 million, using a grant from the World Bank. The cable will cover key entry points -- two on the Rwandan border and one on the Tanzanian side. The cable will also cover the capital, Bujumbura, and all the 17 provinces. ZTE of China has been awarded the tender to lay the cable. The first phase of the project is expected to be ready early next year.

The cable is also expected to reduce the cost of Internet access by more than 70 percent. Today, Internet users in Burundi pay some of the highest rates for connectivity in Africa.

In Uganda, the government acquired a Chinese loan of about $102 million to lay a cable over 2,100 km long, which has been embroiled in a corruption scandal and is more than 18 months behind schedule. In 2009, the Ugandan Parliament ordered a forensic audit following claims that Huawei of China, the project implementer, was laying the wrong cable. The audit faulted Huawei and the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, which was monitoring the works, for poor works as well as pricing anomalies on the part of Huawei.

Patrick Mwesigwa, the acting head of Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) told the Congress that it is implementing the backbone project in three phases with the first phase already done.

Work on phase two, which links the south of the country to the north is due for completion at the end of this year. Phase three, which will connect the cable with Rwanda, is expected to begin in the course of the second half of the year.

"By mid-next year, the national backbone should be completed," Mwesigwa said. He noted that the Ugandan cable has two components -- one has linked all government offices and another with spare capacity for the private operators to lease.

The Kenyan government is also investing $60 million in a fiber cable of its own. The National Optic Fibre Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI) is being implemented by Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE and a French firm, Sagem. Unlike the other countries of East Africa, Kenya's private sector has laid a lot of the fibre optics. Some 5,000 km of fiber had been laid by the private players by June 2010.

The five partner states plan to link their cables in one network to lower the cost of communication by increasing the speed and capacity of internet connectivity.

Telecommunications regulators from these partner states are also pushing for a regional internet exchange point to keep traffic within the region local.