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Africa Set for Subsea Cable Surge

19 April 2012

The investment expected to be ploughed into African submarine cable construction this year and next is more than double that which will be spent on systems anywhere else in the world.

This is according to telecommunications market research firm Telegeography. The telecoms analysis company's latest data for long-haul networks and the undersea cable market, Global Bandwidth Research Service, reflects the recent surge in submarine cable construction globally and projects global growth into 2013.

Data shows $2 billion will be invested in new subsea cable systems for Africa in 2012 and 2013, almost double the amount spent in 2010 and 2011. This is also more than double the amount that will be spent on cable systems in any of the other eight main global regions, including Latin America and Caribbean, Asia and the Trans-Atlantic. By comparison, Asia is second in line in terms of financial outlay and will see an investment of about $800 million in 2012 and 2013.

Globally speaking, Telegeography says 19 systems, worth an aggregate $3.7 billion, were launched in 2010 and 2011 and, throughout 2012 and 2013, 33 submarine cable systems costing a projected total of $5.5 billion will be deployed. "And the pace of growth will only pick up in the next few years.”

Locally, Africa's shoreline has had a fair share of action recently and will see that continue into 2013. Just this week the Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA – announced a new 34 000km cable to link the five countries to the US. The West African Cable System landed in Cape Town a year ago and is set for commercial launch next month. The Africa Coast to Europe cable is set for launch this year, while the South Atlantic Express cable is anticipated for 2013.

Real benefits

The submarine cable construction spurt, says Telegeography, may seem superfluous, given the vast amount of untapped potential capacity on many existing submarine cables. However, it notes that it is not capacity restraints that are driving most new cable projects. Analyst Tim Stronge says operators are deploying new systems for a variety of reasons, including physical route diversity, latency reduction, strategic advantage and "the lure of relatively high price margins” on some of the routes.

World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck presented a talk, "Unravelling the undersea cables”, at the Broadband Confex, in Sandton this week, in which he outlined the position and development of sub-Saharan cables.

Goldstuck's research projects Sub-Saharan cable capacity for 2013 at 35 470Gbps – an increase of 12 800Gbps compared to this year and 27 120Gbps more than in 2011. In 2008, sub-Saharan capacity sat at just 80Gbps.

"We are seeing an ongoing and dramatic increase in total cable capacity to sub-Saharan Africa – most of which will serve SA as well. However, total capacity shouldn't be confused with capacity in use. The industry term for used capacity is lit fibre, as opposed to dark fibre, which is unused capacity that has not been switched on,” he explains.

At this stage, he says, well under 1Tb of the potential 22Tb capacity serving sub-Saharan Africa is actually in use.

Goldstuck says the benefits of the considerable capacity do not lie in the capacity itself. "[Rather the benefits lie in] the fact that it provides competition, which in turn forces down prices; it provides redundancy, which means we are not at the mercy of the elements or criminal activity when one line breaks; it improves latency, which means less of a signal delay for applications that need instant interactivity; and it entirely removes the traditional bottleneck of lack of international options, which had a knock-on effect on all of these other factors.”