Undersea cables set to launch African bandwidth explosion

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Many years ago, I worked for UUNET Internet Africa in South Africa. I remember sitting in the Operations room and looking at an international undersea cabling map, which showed each and every cable connecting the different continents of the world. It used to amaze me that South Africa’s connection to the rest of the world was so fragile. If I remember correctly, we really relied on one or two undersea cables at the time. I believe one of them was SAT-2, which had a total bandwidth of 560Mbps to carry all of our international telecommunications and internet traffic. Meanwhile, up in the northern hemisphere the sea-bed was positively littered with cables connecting Europe and North America in a multitude of ways.

Things have changed though, and it seems that Africa is finally catching up. This week, Wasace Cable Company announced that it intends to lay fibre-optic cable that will connect four continents, including Africa, with a total bandwidth of 100Gbps.

This year has seen a massive surge in efforts to improve the undersea cabling that connects Africa to the rest of the world. Earlier in the year, work started on the WACS cable, a 14 000 km cable that will link South Africa to London. Its 15 terminal stations running up the West Coast of Africa will provide additional bandwidth to a number of countries, and will become the first direct connection to the undersea cable network for Namibia, the Congos and Togo. WACS should go live early in 2012, and will increase South Africa’s bandwidth by an estimated 23%.

But WACS isn’t alone. The ACE project which was launched in the middle of last year and is also destined to go live next year. ACE will also improve connectivity to Europe, starting in Cape Town and terminating in France. The cable, which is just two inches thick but stuffed with fibre optics, will provide international bandwidth to more than 20 countries along its route and is already causing excitement up and down the coast of Africa.

Recently South African telecommunications company, eFive, announced that it was working on the SAEx cable in conjunction with Alcatel-Lucent. The company is finalising capital investment for the project, but believes that the unique cabling route will have geo-political consequences and will also provide much needed cable route diversity to Africa’s current infrastructure. SAex says that agreements should be signed with construction and supply partners in January 2012.

South Africa is experiencing a boom in connectivity, but we’ll only see the real benefits towards the end of 2012 when all of the current network providers can start taking advantage of all of this additional bandwidth that is becoming available. The story is not, however, limited to South Africa, which has a relatively long history of internet connectivity. This story is one for the whole continent, where current estimations are that only 10 percent of the the entire population of Africa has access to the internet, compared to 65% of the population of Europe. I believe that in a world where people are arguing that internet access is a human right, this sort of connectivity across Africa is long overdue.

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