News Column

Nigeria , S'africa, Others Underutilise Continent's 16 Submarine Cable Systems

August 26, 2014

Adeyemi Adepetun and Bankole Orimisan

DESPITE the berth of about 16 submarine cable systems in Nigeria and other African countries, the continent is still not competitive, especially in terms of content delivery; qualitative Internet service and maximum utilization of the bandwidth facilities. This is compared to its counterparts in Europe, America and Asia.

Indeed, Africa's submarine cable market is estimated to worth over $20 billion, with operators including the South Atlantic 3; MainOne; Glo1; West African Cable System (WACS); Lower Indian Ocean Network (Lion); African Coast to Europe (ACE); Seacom, EASSy; TEAMS; South Africa Far East (SAFE); West Africa Festoon System (WAFS) among others, dominating the market.

As at today, report has it that the total capacity in sub-Saharan African submarine cable systems increased by 71 per cent over the last five years, with the availability of over 25Tb/s bandwidth capacity.

Speaking at a global press conference, in Johannebourg, South Africa, last week to announce System Applications Products (SAP) $500 million Information and Communications Technology (ICT) investment for Nigeria and four other African countries between now and 2020, Chief Operating Officer, SAP Africa, Derek Kundsee said the continent can boasts of 16 submarine cables with 25Tb/s capacity, but that only one terabyte bandwidth capacity has so far been used.

Kundsee, who decried this situation, said this development was not good for a continent with huge emerging market potential. He stressed that the availability of bandwidth in Africa should give the market more technology advantages and create investment atmosphere.

A submarine communications cable is a cable laid on the sea bed between land-based stations to carry telecommunication signals across stretches of ocean. The first submarine communications cables laid in the 1850s, carried telegraphy traffic. Subsequent generations of cables carried telephone traffic, then data communications traffic. Modern cables use optical fiber technology to carry digital data, which includes telephone, Internet and private data traffic.

Modern cables are typically 69 millimetres (2.7 in) in diameter and weigh around 10 kilograms per metre (7 lb/ft), although thinner and lighter cables are used for deep-water sections.

Kundsee, who said the continent's booming mobile market holds greater advantage for content creation and more utilization of bandwidth capacity, disclosed that Africa is home to about 800 million mobile telephone users, "this is a good advantage for operators in this market, because they have potential customers."

The SAP Africa COO called for increased technology applications across all sectors of the economy in Africa, this he said could put more bandwidths to use and give room for innovations, by so doing accelerating the continent's competitiveness.

According to him, challenges facing the African wholesale capacity market include limited fixed broadband deployment compared to other markets; slow growth of mobile Internet (still mostly 2G), adding that strong control over terrestrial backhaul segments must be overcome to enhance capacity distribution.

Indeed, in one of her interviews with The Guardian, the Chief Executive Officer of MainOne Cables, Funke Opeke said years into the landing of submarine cables in Nigeria from separate cable operators, the country is yet to make maximum use of the cable capacities.

Opeke said MainOne was yet to utilise five per cent of its cable capacities, and that the same was applicable to other cable operators like Glo 1, and MTN WACS.

The MainOne CEO lamented a situation where Nigeria has more than enough broadband capacities from several submarine cables at the shores of the country, yet less than 10 per cent of the total broadband capacities from the three cable operators was being utilised in a country of over 160 million persons.

Glo 1, operated by Globacom, with capacity of 640 Gbit/s, covering distance of 10,000 km from Lagos to UK, connecting 17 African and European countries, landed the shores of Nigeria in 2009, while Main One, which landed in 2010, covers over 7,000 km distance from London, with initial landing stations in Nigeria, Ghana and Portugal.

MTN's West African Cable System (WACS) commenced operation in 2011, and is delivered to Nigeria by MTN. It has links from Europe, West Africa and South Africa, with bandwidth capacity of over 5.12 Terabytes (Tbps) and spanning a distance of 14,530 km.

All these broadband capacities, Opeke said, remained at the shores of the country, with less than 10 per cent utilisation. She however said the cable operators were able to reduce cost of bandwidth in the wholesale market, but that the retail market, which affects the consumers directly, still operate high cost of bandwidth.

Comparing Nigeria with other African countries, Opeke said Kenya and Tanzania have gone far in Internet access penetration because the government of those countries built a nationwide infrastructure backbone and allowed the private sector to run it at a determined low cost and that every Internet Service Provider (ISPs) has equal access to available broadband capacities.

But in Nigeria, each cable company is building its own broadband infrastructure and fixing prices at will, which in most cases are very high because the operators have to add the cost of building their own infrastructure backbone.

According to her, there should be infrastructure framework policy in Nigeria where government would consider existing backbone infrastructure and make the available capacities accessible to operators at reduced cost.

"Government should step in, look at existing infrastructure and set a regulatory policy that will enable people buy bandwidth at a government determined price, instead of each operator building its own backbone and putting its own price," Opeke said.

According to Philip Bates of Analysis Mason, there are only five countries - Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe that can be said to have effective competition among multiple national fibre providers.

Bates said seven major new submarine cable systems have been completed in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2009, and several more are planned. This development has transformed the availability of bandwidth in coastal regions, and competition between cable operators is leading to a rapid reduction in the price-per-megabit-per-second to end users.

However, he noted that the availability of abundant, inexpensive fibre capacity on the coasts of Africa is clearly a welcome development, but it is not sufficient to enable the provision of broadband services throughout the continent.

For this, he said the continent will also need; international terrestrial links to bring connectivity to landlocked countries (of which there are 16 in the region); national fibre networks to link population centres to the international gateways and local broadband networks to deliver 'last mile' connectivity.

Bates noted in his report that 35 of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have no competition among national fibre providers; eight have limited competition - that is, two providers besides the mobile companies, usually the incumbent fixed-line operator and either the government or the electricity transmission company.

"Only five countries (Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe) can be said to have effective competition among multiple players.

"In countries that lack effective competition, fibre connectivity in cities that are far removed from submarine cable landing stations often costs five or six times as much as it does at the landing station", he stated.


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Source: AllAfrica


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