By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day, 29 July, 2011

There is much activity on the go across Africa in the race to build terrestrial fibre networks to connect towns and cities to the increasing number of undersea cables that are landing along the east and west coasts.“But this is not happening as quickly as it was envisaged,”  says Howard Earley, chief operating officer at Plessey Group.

He says there was a lot of hype about how the undersea cables would increase speeds and bring down costs. But internet connectivity services can only deliver as fast as the slowest point in the network.

In South Africa, progress is being hindered by environmental regulations that involve a lot of red tape, which did not exist a few years ago. For example If the cable needs to cross any water, or even a dry river bed, this requires approval from the department of water affairs and the relevant local municipality.

To complicate matters still further individual municipalities have different requirements.
“When the first fibre cables were laid, the infrastructure builders just went ahead and did it.”

He says environmental issues were one of the factors that delayed the fibre network recently completed by Dark Fibre Africa that runs between Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal. “We dug the trenches and laid the ducting for the fibre for this,” says Earley.

The building of this link required the owner to meet the environmental requirements of 27 municipalities on route. He says Plessey is working on a similar project to lay trenches and ducting for the national network being built by the Neotel, MTN and Vodacom consortium.

Further up Africa, over the past two years Plessey built a large portion of the Trans-Kalahari fibre network, which runs from the SA side of Botswana to Namibia. Other terrestrial fibre projects are underway that will run from Kampala on the east side of Uganda to Mombassa on the east coast of Kenya to link up with the Seacom and EASSy undersea cables.

Fibre infrastructure projects have also started in Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, and Tanzania that will eventually link up with this fibre network. All three operators in Nigeria are planning long distance fibre networks from Lagos or Port Harcourt on the coast to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria inland, says Earley.

An increasing number of fixed line and mobile operators, ISPs and other service providers and their customers are interconnecting through central hubs, or internet exchanges. In line with this global trend, Teraco, has built two of these exchanges, which are located in Cape Town and Johannesburg and it is opening a new facility in Durban in August.

The exchanges consist of a large data centre that is equipped with cooling and heavy duty power supply. Tenants then rent dedicated space and install networking equipment to enable them to interconnect with each other and with their customers.

“We sell space to many ISPs that in turn sell to smaller ISPs,” says Lex van Wyk, MD of Teraco. He says UK company Telehouse were early adopters of this concept 20 years ago and are one of the leaders in this field.

“Some 80% of the world’s internet traffic passes through Telehouse’s internet exchanges.”
Teraco’s Cape Town premises covers 500 square metres of space and the company is looking to expand this by another 1,200 square metres this year.

Its Johannesburg premises covers 1250 square metres of space, which is already fully occupied, and plans are afoot to expand this by another 1000 square metres by the end of the year. Some corporate organisations are also using the exchanges as a disaster recovery site for their own data centres, says van Wyk.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist and she writes regularly for Business Day. She also runs media training and writing skills workshops, and is the author of A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing and distributing effective press releases, an electronic version of which can be downloaded free from her website: www.jennigay.co.za.

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