A map of African underseas cables

Subsea communications cables: connected continent

Africa is being ringed by networks of undersea communications cable systems that will play a major part in supporting the continent's future growth.

Specially-equipped vessels tasked with laying subsea communications cables have, over the last four years, been navigating routes off the east and west coasts of Africa. The high-speed, high-capacity fibre-optic circuits they have been spooling out are now playing an integral part in facilitating the major digital links that will form the backbone of the continent's communications infrastructure for decades to come.

Some of the cables can extend as far north as the UK, and 'land' (i.e., have multiple shoreward connections) on as many as 16 coastal countries between Mauritania and Melkbosstrand, some 35km away from Cape Town. Although these landing countries where shore stations are located and naturally positioned to gain most from being physically linked, the benefits of the offshore communications resources will eventually feed through to landlocked nation states in central Africa, enabling them to build out their own national networks in due course.

As they become active, the subsea cables will hugely boost subsea cable service offering capacity on both sides of sub-Saharan Africa: all things being well, by the end of next year combined service capacities should exceed 67Tb/s on the west coast and 22Tb/s on the east coast. The full promise of the new comms cables will take time to roll out ' but as it does so the effect should be profound.

Quality comms links

Access to high-speed comms 'pipes' is a prerequisite for developing internal infrastructures needed by commercial initiatives that can energise local economies. They are as important as other utility services that are in short supply in many parts of Africa, such as water and electricity. This is because technology-driven initiatives increasingly need high-quality comms links with the rest of Africa and the world in order to deliver on their objectives, and the current solutions are often either technologically below par or prohibitively expensive.

Before 2009, sub-Saharan Africa was principally served by two subsea fibre-optic systems, SAT-2 and SAT-3. SAT-2, which entered service in 1993 and is 9,500km long, bypassed the west coast of the continent and terminated in South Africa. More fully known as SAT-3/WASC (South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable), the latter (and its eastward-heading partner cable SAFE) were activated in 2001. It was the first to bring fibre-optic-class connectivity to sub-Saharan countries beside South Africa.

As noted by Terabit Consulting's Submarine Telecoms Industry Report 2012, the eastern coastline between South Africa and the Djibouti Republic in the north of the Horn of Africa, then remained the world's longest expanse of coastline without fibre. This prompted the consortium-led EASSy (Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System) project in 2003, and the development of two proposed private- and government-sponsored subsea cable projects (Seacom and TEAMS, respectively) when the consortium became delayed. By 2010 each of the three east coast projects had entered service. Two all-private west coast projects, GLO-1 and Main One, also became operational. In 2012 connectivity to west coast countries was further expanded by the WACS and ACE projects (also consortia).

To date, there are several operational undersea cable services apiece off Africa's west and east coasts. Some (such as the pioneering Seacom) have been operational for years. Newer networks such as SAT3/SAFE and WACS off the west coast (at 340Gb/s, 440Gb/s and 512Tb/s respectively), and Seacom and EASSy running round the eastern seas (1.280Tb/s and 4.72Tb/s), make it possible to provision broadband services that are common in more developed regions.

"There has been rapid build-up of fibre-optic submarine cables over a comparatively short period of time in Africa," says Claude Sassoulas, managing director (Europe/Africa) at Tata Communications. "They are playing an increasingly critical role in Africa's oil and gas industry, enabling operating companies in Angola and Nigeria, for example, to bring high-speed Internet links to oil rigs. This is enabling the adoption of more connected, innovative working methods."

Subsea cables can also provide backhaul capacity to help boost and extend mobile voice and data services, thus creating an upgrade route capable of challenging mobile infrastructure in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa (with the exclusion of South Africa). At the start of 2012, there were some 650 million mobile subscriptions in Africa, making its mobile telephony market bigger than the EU or the US, according to an end-of-year study from the World Bank, which provides financial and technical assistance to developing regions. In a still largely openly competitive market, telecoms service providers will be obliged to keep tariffs down otherwise their customer base will simply become inactive in depressed local economies.

Opportunities for Africa

As well as supporting African business initiatives, the new connectivity means that an indigenous communications industry aimed at both commercial and domestic users has scope for expansion ' thus creating additional revenue streams to benefit local economies.

The World Bank reckons the growth benefits that broadband provides for developing countries are of similar magnitude as that for developed economies ' that's about a 1.38 percentage point increase for each 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration, World Bank analysts estimate.

Furthermore, cable transmission technologies being regularly upgraded means lucrative opportunities for wide-area networking equipment vendors. Seacom's 17,000km network upgrade now underway will see Ciena Corporation's 6500 Packet-Optical Platforms deployed in countries such as Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and South Africa. This will boost both 'lit' (active) and 'unlit' (inactive or 'dark') cable capacities.

Additional benefits can be gained when different subsea cables are able to connect. East Africa, for instance, has a natural geographic advantage when it comes to accessing cable links serving India and the Middle East, such as EASSy; but it can also take advantage of its proximity to cables linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal ' and via shore-based hubs in the SEA-ME-WE 4 and EIG cables, for instance, that run on to Europe.

The subsea cable lays and upgrades over the last three years are already having a quantifiable impact in many ways across African societies according to David James, principal analyst, wholesale telecoms at research firm Ovum. Prices ' Internet charges and mobile phone tariffs, say ' have come down in several countries, he says, and these savings have freed-up capital for investment elsewhere. Cheaper usage costs would also make it easier for budget- strapped charities and other NGOs to stay in touch on a more affordable basis.

James adds: "From a broader perspective, the fact that Africans can start to look forward to similar standards of digital communications availability as, say, South America and parts of the Middle East, is creating a more level playing field, which will give its businesses more confidence to compete internationally. And, of course, it enables other, more technologically-advanced markets to work with African partners, including South Africa, which has long been more advanced."

Africa received its largest-ever share of global foreign direct investment in 2011, according to a survey by Ernst & Young. Much of Africa's infrastructure investments – public and private – have been in increasing network capacity or bandwidth so Internet services are available to more countries across the continent. The World Bank's recent 'eTransform Africa' report says that infrastructure for international connectivity requires large upfront investments that the private sector cannot shoulder.

The challenge now, according to Tata Communications, is connecting coastal subsea cable communications to landlocked countries in central Africa. "Many African nations have had difficult relations with neighbouring states in the past, yet inland countries must rely on these neighbours when establishing new networks," says James Walker, VP of managed network services at Tata. "We are starting to see joint initiatives between private sector companies and governments in places such as Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, to improve respective countries' connectivity with coastal-based connections, and to build out national fibre backbones."

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