For immigrants, new cable a long-awaited connectionby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Ayub Limat often sees the challenges some African immigrants in Minnesota have communicating with their loved ones in Africa.
They show up to the Cedar-Riverside tobacco shop where he works to complain about phone cards they've bought from him.
"People complain that it used up all their money, but it's the network (in Africa) not the card," Limat said.
Many countries in Africa have struggled to establish reliable, inexpensive phone, wireless phone and Internet service over the years, so many are celebrating a new undersea fiber-optic cable along the coast of East Africa that could improve communication between that region and the rest of the world.
The East African Submarine System cable, which went live last month, is expected to improve Internet access and voice and data phone service to 21 countries from South Africa to Sudan. Two of those countries -- Somalia and Ethiopia -- have large immigrant and refugee populations in Minnesota.
Right now the two countries differ greatly in terms of the quality and cost of communicating by phone. Somalis in Minnesota often receive calls from loved ones in Somalia because it's cheaper than for Somalis in Minnesota to call there. Somali immigrants in Minnesota said it's also reliable.
"It's like talking to St. Paul," said Dahir Jibreel, who directs the Somali Justice Advocacy Center and was chief of staff under former Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.
But that isn't the case for members of Minnesota's Oromo community who try to keep in touch with loved ones in Ethiopia. There, the telecommunications system is controlled by the government, and people whose families live in the U.S. must often wait until their loved ones call.
"It's expensive. They don't call and talk, they usually just call and leave a message and I call them back," said Mubarek Lolo, an employment counselor at the Oromo Community of Minnesota who often calls his parents and brother.
People living in Ethiopia might spend the equivalent of $10 just to talk for six minutes, Lolo said. In contrast, he can call his brother and parents in Ethiopia with a $5 phone card that lasts about 20 minutes, assuming the network doesn't cut him off.
Limat said most of the customers who report problems with the phone cards had called Ethiopia. But he and Lolo agreed that the new fiber-optic cable might not help people living in their home country communicate with those in other countries because they believe the government will continue to monopolize telecommunications.
"There's no freedom to choose a different provider," Lolo said. "Unless they get the private sectors involved, it won't develop as fast as it should."
But the private sector economy is one area in which immigrant community leaders in Minnesota think the fiber-optic cable could play a positive role.
"I hope and believe it's going to be a gateway of commerce," said Hussein Samatar, founder and executive director of the African Development Center in Minneapolis.
Samatar said businesses that African immigrants have established here that have ties to countries in Africa could benefit from improved communication services, especially money transfer services or businesses with satellite offices in Africa.
The cable isn't the first fiber-optic cable to service East Africa, but with more providers, prices for wireless phone service and Internet are expected to eventually drop.
Communication systems could also become more reliable in the region, easing communication with the rest of the world.
Jibreel said the cable will allow for more real-time information on prices and other market information to be exchanged among countries.
"Communicating and instantaneously evaluating the prices of things everywhere of goods and services can tremendously change the business practices" in Africa, Jibreel said.
Ali Jama, who works as a compliance officer for the money transfer business Dahab-Shil Inc. in Minneapolis, said many of the transactions his company sends to Africa must currently be routed through London or the Middle East.
"If we have a reliable Internet in Africa, we might divert some of our operations that have been in Europe or the Middle East," Jama said.
But he said he's waiting to see how well the new system performs.
"It depends on how that system works, how efficient that system is. In Europe and Middle East, they're reliable and well-maintained," Jama said. "You have to develop skepticism about it at first."
The investment company that led the project has touted the fiber-optic system's capabilities. And at least one outside expert also thinks it has great potential.
"The biggest change is going to be that eventually you'll see prices coming down," said Alan Mauldin, director of research at TeleGeography, a Washington D.C.-based market research firm.
Mauldin said reliability will be the other big change -- with more than one fiber-optic cable servicing the countries, there will be fewer outages or network problems.
"This was probably one of the last areas that really needed to get fiber-connectivity in this way, so it's definitely a big accomplishment for the region," he said.