Why more is better when it comes to subsea cables and Africa

By Ben Roberts, Liquid Telecom

Between 2009 and 2012, seven major subsea cables were deployed along the east and west coasts of Africa, bringing an abundance of international connectivity to the continent for the first time.

An estimated $3 billion poured into the construction of these undersea networks, which have played an important role in developing Africa’s internet ecosystem.

Today, most of these cables are less than 7 years old – to add some perspective, the average lifespan of a subsea cable is 25 years – and not all of their capacity has been lit.

Meanwhile, a new generation of subsea cables are making their way to Africa.

Earlier in the year, Liquid Telecom announced its first subsea cable project, called Liquid Sea, which will run the length of Africa’s east coast with onwards connectivity to Europe.

We are not alone in this endeavor – other projects in the pipeline include the Djibouti-Africa Regional Express (DARE), as well as the consortium backed Africa-1 and O2Cs. There is even a proposed project to connect Africa to Latin America with a subsea cable link for the first time; the South Africa Cable System (SACS).

This has prompted cynicism from some industry leaders and market watchers, who suggest that all these new systems are unnecessary.

Africa’s phenomenal demand for internet access suggests otherwise – and efforts are currently underway to ensure that 80% of all African internet content is being served from Africa.

Here are six reasons why more subsea cables are beneficial to the market and the continent as a whole:

1)         Connecting the unconnected: Not all African countries were connected by the first wave of subsea cables. Some countries such as Eritrea and Somaliland were overlooked, while there is fresh demand for access to cables from other nations – for example, northern Mozambique requires reliable high-speed internet to support the rise of new oil and gas reserves.

2)         Greater diversity: At the moment, there are a limited number of African landing stations where the major subsea cable systems interconnect, and traffic is sent onwards to Europe and Asia. This enables certain companies to act as ‘gatekeepers’ and charge excessive cross-connect fees, which in some cases can be about 50% of the total cost of bandwidth sold in Africa – just for provisioning a 30 metre piece of fibre optic cable to a landing station. New cables bring diversity and increase choice so that traffic can be switched to the best location, as well as avoid excessive fees.

3)         Increasing competition: More subsea cables and landing stations will bring greater competition and geographic redundancy. Countries such as the Seychelles are currently reliant on one single subsea cable, with satellite as the only back-up. Elsewhere, countries reliant on one landing station owned by one company will always suffer from high bandwidth pricing. Two landing stations will help improve resiliency and pricing, but four or five landing stations will really start to drive pricing down as well as improve reliability.

4)         New players in the market: There’s been dramatic changes in the market since the South Atlantic-3 was built in the early 2000s by a consortium of copper network and fixed-line operators. Today’s telecoms ecosystem is much more diverse and features many more players (including OTTs), which were unrepresented in the first wave of subsea cable systems. These new players require capacity and are investing in new systems accordingly.

5)         Advancements in technology: Technology is advancing all the time, but many of the older cable systems operate using SDH-based networks, with repeater spacing and fibre types that prevent upgrades. More modern systems can upgrade using 100G wavelengths, but new systems can leverage this mega capacity technology from day one.

6)         Keeping engineers in a job: The world has to keep building new cables in order to keep grey-haired engineers employed. Actually, they should hold off retirement just yet as the subsea cable industry is enjoying a major renaissance at the moment. We’ve seen lots of investment worldwide in new projects, and competition is heating up between vendors. In fact, many of them are offering great prices and many projects are also receiving government funding. There’s perhaps never been a better time to be a consultant or an engineer.