By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day – 12 November 2009

Consumers and businesses located near to the Seacom cable landing points in Richards Bay and on the east coast of Africa will get the best benefits of faster broadband connectivity initially until national fibre network upgrades are more advanced.

“We used to have more terrestrial than international telecommunications infrastructure, but with all the undersea cable projects on the go the situation is now reversed,” says Steve Song, telecommunications fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation.

If all these cable projects pan out, they will collectively provide the African continent with more capacity than is required. He says some of these cables have a good chance of being completed, including the West African Cable System (WACS), which will link SA and west African coastal countries to Europe and recently announced that it had upgraded its design capacity to 5.1 terabits.

“This cable has a potential capacity of 4 times that of Seacom and over 15 times the capacity of the newly upgraded SAT-3 cable,” says Song. Telkom, Vodacom, MTN, Neotel and government-owned Infraco are all part of the consortium investing in WACS and it therefore has a good chance of going live on schedule in 2011.

He says a few other cables are expected to go live between now and then, which will make for a competitive market for international capacity. For example, the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy) is  scheduled to go live in June next year.

EASSy will run up the East coast of Africa from Durban to Sudan with seven landing points including Tanzania and Mozambique. The East African Marine System (TEAMS), which will link Kenya to United Arab Emirates is already built and is expected to go live at any time.

Then there is Glo1, which will connect Nigeria to the UK, with additional landing points in Portugal, Ghana, Senegal, and possibly other countries along the way, which was due to go live this year, but has been delayed due to landing rights problems, says Song.

He says the African Coast to Europe (ACE) cable, which will link 20 west African countries to France also has a promising future because it is backed by France Telecom, which has a strong presence in Africa and is also involved in the undersea cable business.

There is talk of ACE connecting to 20 African countries, many of which are small and will not be targeted by other undersea cables, and this will put them in a good position. Telkom recently completed an upgrade of the SAT-3 undersea cable to nearly three times its previous capacity, from 120 Gbps to 340 Gbps.

Song says a regulatory framework is needed to ensure open access to these cables, especially across borders, which although it is starting to happen is a major challenge. He says a lot of activity is going on with the building of terrestrial infrastructure to link to the cables and extend international connectivity to inland areas.

“Everyone is currently building terrestrial infrastructure, but this takes longer because even just to connect major cities via a national fibre backbone involves multiple fibre deployments.” He says Botswana has already built a national fibre network and Uganda has raised $200 million through Chinese investors to do the same.

Rwanda is building fibre links to Uganda to connect through Ugandan and Kenyan fibre infrastructure to the Seacom landing point in Mombasa, Kenya. Tanzania and Mozambique have similar plans for terrestrial fibre infrastructure.

“The pressure is on to build the infrastructure to connect to the undersea cables as they go live,” says song. When the terrestrial infrastructure is in place and the right interconnect agreements are in place, some of these networks will be able to link to each other and from there to more than one undersea cable.

“For this to happen, the regulators need to ensure cross-border interconnection is commercially affordable.” Otherwise, the owners of the infrastructure in one country could end up holding another country to ransom.

This is why governments in SA and some other African countries are investing in fibre infrastructure and undersea cable systems.

To date the new Seacom cable has not had a noticeable affect on broadband prices apart from some operators and service providers offering more data capacity at the same price. Hindrances to price reductions include the lack of national and last mile broadband capacity.

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