The future of subsea cable connectivity in Africa

By Byron Clatterbuck, SEACOM CEO

Africa may be a growing hub of digital innovation, particularly noticeable in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Nairobi and Lagos – with companies in these metropolitan areas taking advantage of high-speed fibre connections to embrace the cloud and develop new business models and processes.  These leading-edge companies are connecting with their peers more-and-more at a regional and global level. 

As a key part of this digital evolution, the Content Delivery Networks, the Content Providers, Hyper-Scalers, and the Cloud-based Service Providers are increasingly moving their capabilities, content and infrastructure to Africa. 

It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in just ten short years. Frankly, up until around 2009, Africa was still a dark continent in terms of high-speed data connectivity and open access cable systems. When SEACOM launched the first broadband submarine cable along the continent’s Eastern and Southern coastlines in July 2009, we had no idea that one day we would own Africa’s most extensive ICT data infrastructure with a resilient, continent-wide IP-MPLS network.  Since then, the addition of the EASSy Cable System, and then the WACs cable system on the West Coast, has meant that as of mid-2012 there are three high-speed “terabit capable” subsea cable systems linking South Africa to Europe and the rest of the world.

Despite these developments on international subsea infrastructure, reliable and affordable data connectivity issues continue to plague the continent. Internet penetration may have increased by 19% – from 167 million users in 2013 to 453 million users in 2018 – but that is largely due to the roll out of mobile networks, and the adoption of smartphones and mobile usage. This poses the question of whether or not “fixed-line” connectivity can or should catch up with mobile in Africa? 

On a continent with roughly 1.3 billion citizens, 16 of 55 African countries are landlocked, which poses challenges in terms of extending the high-speed capabilities of the international subsea cable systems onto reliable terrestrial fibre cables that connect both to key metropolitan city centers that are not on the coast (Johannesburg and Nairobi for example), as well getting reliable fibre connectivity through coastal countries into landlocked markets.  Obviously, the fact that road and rail access to inland areas of Africa is only just developing in many parts of the continent, it is easy to understand the challenges this puts on constructing and operating basic fibre-based data connectivity. To exacerbate this challenge further, the state of reliable power availability and security of infrastructure at remote sites is often below international standards.   

Although not the only factor at play, subsea fibre optic cables remain Africa’s lifeline, and are the catalyst for further development of long-haul terrestrial and metro fibre deployment; increasing the continent’s integration with the world, and enhancing competitiveness for Africa’ play in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, thanks to the provision of better, faster and cheaper Internet access. At present, 99% of global data travels by subsea fibre optic cables.

Subsea cable systems are a huge capital investment, and they take a long time to plan and construct.  Constructing fibre under the ocean and the landing stations as well as the shore-end work that goes with that, depending on the length and destination, invariably costs hundreds of millions of US dollars.  And from the signing of the construction contract to a successful “ready-for-service” status, usually entails a project plan of 24-36 months. Finding secure and cost-efficient landing points, are also a challenge. Land prices on coastal areas of Africa have increased in price, and the potential environmental assessment process also plays a role when considering an infrastructure project of this scale.

While costs increase on subsea cable builds, capacity through-put increases (meaning overall cost per MB carried declines), data service providers are trapped in a cycle of price declines, with bandwidth prices dropping consistently, while more and more content and cloud capability is available on the African continent.  At the same time, the current handful of subsea cable systems are ageing and will not meet future demand beyond the next few years. In order to mitigate these risks, Africa needs several more high-capacity and diverse subsea cable systems that would complement existing cables and allow for the automatic rerouting of traffic in case of cable cuts or outages.  This allows African data providers to deploy “meshed networks” that allow for multiple linear paths that are all carrying active traffic, which means that, if one path is impacted, the overall network remains functioning with limited impact to customer traffic.

That is why SEACOM believes that the arrival of Google’s Equiano west coast cable system and the potential for Facebook-led Simba east coast subsea cable system will be good for data service providers, their customers, business users, and consumers in Africa. New subsea cables enable a prosperous data ecosystem at the intersection of connectivity, cloud, content and consumer applications that will improve the wider socio-economic landscape. However, the construction and delivery of new high-speed data routes will take time to implement.

What is the solution for an industry on which Africa’s future prosperity depends? We believe that these will be what the industry calls “Hybrid Investment Models”.  This is a modern version of the old shared “consortium model” where many carriers (often one from each landing country) together invested in and built a cable system (SAT-3, EASSy and WACs come to mind).  In the Hybrid Model, new-age data carriers share infrastructure at a fibre level with free and open access at the landing stations. This allows each investor/owner to design the way each particular fibre is lit, and how onward connectivity in designed, as well as how a new linear route is built into that carrier’s overall data network.

Being more agile and carrying shared risk, hybrid models offer a very attractive response to the tasks required. Shared regional submarine cable networks can offer state-of-the-art, yet cost-effective solutions without compromises to the security or performance of the network. Interlinked regional networks can serve as alternative routes for international traffic, making strategic partnerships even more appealing.

The future of subsea cables will require a huge investment in infrastructure in order to develop Africa’s economies and much-needed communications networks. More capacity, more diverse routing and generally more options in subsea infrastructure can kickstart other investments which will further contribute to the continent’s economies.

The ability to compete on an equal footing is key to any organisation succeeding, and SEACOM strives to bring that opportunity to businesses and service providers. Subsea cable systems have proven to be the core mechanism for the high-speed data exchanges so fundamental to operations today, and that isn’t changing anytime soon. 

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