* S.Leone internet access currently slow, expensive
* World Bank providing $30 mln funding
* Barely 1 pct of 5.4 mln people have access (Adds quotes from ceremony)
By Simon Akam
FREETOWN, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Sierra Leone secured its first fibre optic connection to the outside world on Monday with the arrival of the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine cable in the capital Freetown.
Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from a devastating 11-year civil war that ended in 2002, is part of a dwindling group of countries still wholly reliant on highly expensive satellite bandwidth for internet connections.
Numerous studies have identified cheap and fast Internet as a factor that can boost a country’s economic growth.
Wearing a white baseball cap that bore the words “Fiber Landing”, Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma said the event was proof that his country was making progress.
“We are transforming because, as we are speaking, the only available communication outside Sierra Leone is through the satellite, and it is expensive, the quality is limited, and the capacity also has some limitations,” he told an event to mark the landing of the cable by Lumley Beach in western Freetown.
Gilbert Cooper, director of administration of the state-owned Sierra Leone Cable company that is landing the cable, said it would only become operational during the second half of 2012 as other preparations need to be completed first.
When complete, the 17,000-km (11,000-mile) ACE cable will run from France to South Africa, connecting 23 countries. The cable was launched by France Telecom as part of a consortium with telecom operators in participating countries.
Sierra Leone, along with neighbouring Liberia, missed out on previous fibre optic cables laid down the West African coast, such as SAT-3.
“At that time we had a civil war, we didn’t have the opportunity to articulate the arrangement to have a landing station here,” said Senesie Kallon, deputy director general of Sierra Leone’s National Telecommunications Commission.
At present, Internet access in Sierra Leone is currently slow or expensive, and often both.
According to the National Telecommunications Commission, the country as a whole has just 155 Megabits of bandwidth, less than would serve a small American or European town.
Shadi Al-Gerjawi, CEO of mobile phone company Africell in Sierra Leone, said the cable would provide more than forty times the current bandwidth in the country.
“October 10, 2011 will always remain a memorable date for us,” he said. “Today is a major milestone in the life of the telecommunications industry in Sierra Leone.”
The World Bank estimates that bandwidth in Sierra Leone costs 10 times the level in East Africa and 25 times the U.S. price. Barely one percent of the 5.4 million population have access to Internet services.
The Bank is providing $30 million to fund the connection of Sierra Leone to the cable offshore, in return for which it said Sierra Leone would end the current monopoly of the state operator on its international gateway for voice calls.
“There was an opportunity to connect Sierra Leone to ACE in 2011 and if the country were to miss that it wasn’t clear there’d be further opportunities,” said Vijay Pillai, the bank’s country manager in Freetown.
The International Telecommunication Union said in August that nine African countries remain wholly dependent on satellite Internet.
Alongside Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Guinea, Liberia, São Tomé and Príncipe and the Seychelles all lack fibre optic connections to the wider world. (Editing by Mark John)