Wacs cable gets the green light

A cross-section of steel armoured cable,
manufactured by Tyco Telecommunications.
This specific type of cable is installed on
the ocean floor. (Image: Seacom)

The current status of the various African
undersea cable systems.
(Image: Many Possibilities)

Janine Erasmus

Broadband in Africa has received another boost, with the signing in April 2009 of a formal agreement to build the high-speed submarine West African Cable System.

Hot on the heels of a number of other sub-Saharan cable systems, which are all due to come into operation between 2009 and 2011, the West African Cable System (Wacs) received the green light when the agreement was signed in Johannesburg by an international consortium of telecommunications operators.

The agreement lays out terms for the construction and maintenance of the R5.5-billion (US$600-million) submarine fibre-optic cable. A supply contract was signed at the same time, which puts the cable well on track for switch-on in February 2011.

Partners in the venture include Angola Telecom, British-owned Cable & Wireless, Telecom Namibia, Portugal Telecom, Congo’s Sotelco, Togo Telecom, and South African companies MTN, Telkom, Vodacom, state-owned Broadband Infraco, and Tata Communications through Neotel.

The new system will operate on the open access principle – that is, any service provider may use the system, which will increase competition between providers, to the ultimate advantage of the end user.

Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks will supply the 14 000km system, including all associated landing points.

Vodacom chair Pieter Uys described the cable as a significant African and global investment that will have ample capacity to serve the region’s international connectivity needs for many years to come.

Connecting Africa with the world

Running up the west coast of Africa from South Africa to the UK, Wacs will make landfall in Cape Town, Namibia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Canary Islands, Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cape Verde and Portugal before reaching its final destination in the UK.

Namibia, Congo, Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo have never before been connected to a global submarine network.

West Africa currently receives its bandwidth through the existing SAT-3 cable but this has been expensive for users because the controlling consortium, South Africa’s Telkom, has used its monopolistic position to keep prices high. The 3.8 terabit/second Wacs cable will offer users a high-capacity, low-cost alternative.

A number of other cable systems are due to come into operation within the next few years. The East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy, at 1Tb/s), Sea Cable System (Seacom, at 1.3Tb/s), Nigeria’s Glo-1 (640Gb/s), the East Africa Marine System (Teams, at 120Gb/s), and Main One (1.9Tb/s) are all currently in various stages of construction.

Of these, only Glo-1 and Main One will serve West Africa. Seacom and Main One are being built by Tyco Telecommunications, and in addition to Wacs, Alcatel has scooped the tenders for EASSy, Teams and Glo-1.

Wacs is due for completion in 2011, while Main One is due to go live around May 2010 and EASSy one month later. With Seacom, Teams and Glo-1 switching on in 2009, the next few years will see connectivity in Africa soar.

This increased connectivity and competition will result in prices tumbling, according to Seacom president Brian Herlihy. “Prices are now already coming down and are set to become a fraction of what they once were.”

In December 2008 France Telecom and its key brand Orange announced the construction of a West African undersea cable named Ace (African coast to Europe) in partnership with 14 other operators. The 12 000km cable will connect Gabon to France via Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Gambia, Cape Verde, Mauritania, Morocco, Spain and Portugal.

To date not much is known about Ace, but it is also predicted to be operational some time in 2011.

World-class broadband

Broadband in Africa, which has not kept pace with the rest of the world, will be revolutionised by the handful of new cable systems, says Arthur Goldstuck, MD of communications research company World Wide Worx. Users will be spoiled for choice, with the combined international bandwidth capacity coming into sub-Saharan Africa increasing by 120 times by the end of 2011.

World Wide Worx says that current international bandwidth stands at a paltry 80Gb/s, but once all the submarine cables are operational it will soar to around 10Tb/s.

“The Wacs agreement puts in place the final spark for the broadband revolution that is about to sweep Africa,” said Goldstuck, adding that the cable systems will lead to further infrastructure development, especially in the business sector, which in turn will bring connectivity to more end users.

Reshaad Sha of Cisco Systems‘ Internet Business Solutions commented, “The role that the undersea cable operators will play is crucial to both the developmental and economic agendas that have and are being set by African governments.”

Sha added that the responsibility of delivering the increased bandwidth to users will still rest with service providers and governments.

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