Undersea cable links Africa to digital medicine

July 15, 2002

Advancements in computer technology, telecommunications, and digital medicine have evolved with little consideration given to the Third World. Critical infrastructure necessary to support double-reads or electronic consultations in emergency or special

Advancements in computer technology, telecommunications, and digital medicine have evolved with little consideration given to the Third World. Critical infrastructure necessary to support double-reads or electronic consultations in emergency or special cases is missing in most underdeveloped areas, such as the bulk of Africa.

High-speed links to the African continent have the green light now, however. An undersea cable system that was launched in May could signal good news for teleradiology services seeking to expand their reach along coastal African regions.

The new $650 million backbone reaches around Africa from Portugal to India and Malaysia, initially delivering up to 130 Gbps. It was built by a consortium of 36 telecommunication companies led by Telkom.

"Given the large bandwidth and potentially low cost, it should provide a huge impetus to teleradiology and telemedicine in that region," said Dr. Elizabeth Krupinski, an assistant professor of radiology at the University of Arizona. "I would be very surprised if telemedicine does not see a tremendous increase in Africa over the next five years."

Until now, most cross-border telecommunications between African countries was sent via Europe and back. Intercountry and international traffic was carried mostly by costly satellite links.

All countries along the west coast of Africa have immediate access, while links to landlocked nations will be provided according to demand. A study planned over the next three months will look into the feasibility of implementing a subsidiary cable system to provide high-speed bandwidth to countries along Africa's east coast.

"This is one of a number of exciting developments in Africa that make telemedicine solutions viable for the first time," said Dr. Peter Corr, a radiologist at the University of Natal in South Africa.

Corr cited several problems in Africa:

?a scarcity of specialists
?a widely dispersed patient base
?poor landlines


One option is the development of satellite technology. Intelsat pricing has been reduced substantially, making this approach possible for wealthier African countries. Another is the use of cellular mobile networks. Many countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa have digital networks in place.

The new undersea cable around Africa will probably have the greatest impact, connecting many countries that previously were routed through European exchanges. Still, formidable obstacles remain.

"The biggest issues that face the implementation of telemedicine options in Africa are the ones of training and sustainability," Corr said.