Operators are set to benefit from increased data capacity between East Africa and the rest of the world
Construction of EASSy, a cable system connecting East Africa to Europe and the US, was completed last month, further strengthening Africa's connectivity with the rest of the world.
Chris Wood, CEO, WIOCC, the largest shareholder in EASSy, explains the company's plans for the cable and what it means for East Africa.
CommsMEA: When was the cable completed exactly?
Chris Wood: The cable is installed and we are now testing it, prior to launch. Cable installation started in Maputo, Mozambique in December 2009 and was completed ahead of schedule, with the ‘final splice' - joining the two cable segments - taking place on April 19th. We are currently engaged in system testing, which is the final stage before launch. As a result, we are right on schedule to carry the first customer traffic across the system in July 2010.
CommsMEA: What capacity will EASSy have, and what advantages does the cable have over rival systems?
Chris Wood: EASSy is a 2 fibre-pair system with a maximum capacity of 1.4Tbps, making it the largest system serving sub-Saharan Africa. This gives us economy-of-scale advantages compared with any other system and this, together with our low cost base, means we can offer customers a degree of pricing flexibility that simply hasn't been available before.
The EASSy cable itself runs for 10,000km from Mtunzini in South Africa Port Sudan, with landings in Mozambique, Madagascar, the Comores, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Djibouti.
In addition to this coastal connectivity, we have access to the most extensive terrestrial fibre-optic network in Africa - owned by our shareholders and selected partners - enabling us to reach customers in numerous locations across 21 countries throughout the eastern half of Africa.
We have also set up agreements with a variety of international operators to extend connectivity to key internet exchanges and commercial centres worldwide. All of this not only gives our customers enormous reach, but also the reassurance that comes with a system that has been designed and built for resilience - with protection switching and diverse routing being implemented end-to-end across the system.
CommsMEA: Where does WIOCC expect to get most of its business from, in terms of countries and companies?
Chris Wood: Our 14 shareholders, from Botswana, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Lesotho, Libya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, will comprise the majority of our business. Most are rolling out fibre-optic networks and many are developing high-bandwidth applications which will drive significant and growing amounts traffic onto our network.
The most mature internet markets - South Africa, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe - will be the main generators of international traffic, so ISPs in these markets will also comprise a significant part of WIOCC's business.
With the continued rapid growth in Internet uptake in Sudan, Kenya and Uganda in particular, these countries will become increasingly important for us over time. Internet markets that are currently less developed, such as Tanzania, Ethiopia and Madagascar, will experience incremental growth with the arrival of submarine connectivity, and the smallest Internet markets such as Djibouti, Comoros, Swaziland and Burundi - will see the fastest growth.
That's inside Africa, but we also service the requirements of international operators. We are actively engaged in discussions with carriers and other service providers in North America, Europe, the Middle East, India and Asia about improving their African connectivity.
CommsMEA: How much competition do you see in the submarine cables sector in the coming years?
Chris Wood: With more than 3.8Gbps of bandwidth now available on the east coast, I don't expect to see any further cable builds on this side of Africa for the next few years. We do expect to see a continuing migration of traffic away from satellite as service providers terminate expensive long-term contracts and turn down or switch off backup capacity - no longer necessary with the sub-sea alternatives now available.
As the only East African system with built-in end-to-end resilience, delivering the fastest route to Europe and North America, and offering an unprecedented degree of commercial flexibility, we believe that our proposition positions us well to compete in this market.
CommsMEA: What demand for cable capacity do you see in the coming years?
Chris Wood: Many industry experts are predicting that the internet explosion in Africa could be even more profound over the next five years than the explosion in mobile usage that precedes it. Our own analysis certainly supports this, with demand expected to be robust and ongoing.
Even in mature markets, international Internet bandwidth traffic - most of which is carried on submarine capacity - is growing by 60% a year, while demand from private networks is growing at 45% a year. Much of this growth is driven by a shift towards video and on-demand applications, supplementing the existing high demand for peer-to-peer file sharing and networking.
In Africa, we expect growth to be considerably higher than this. The arrival of affordable, high-speed, international connectivity is fuelling appetites for lower cost, higher-speed, more accessible internet access, which will continue to drive high rates of growth and ongoing traffic demand.
CommsMEA: How can operators can use undersea cable connections to benefit their networks?
Chris Wood: In this region, carriers have traditionally had to rely on satellites for their international connectivity. The arrival of undersea cables is now offering them significant advantages, specifically less delay, greater scalability and lower cost.
For international connections, satellites introduce long delays because of the often long communication path between the two locations. Fibre-optic systems are typically deployed to minimise route distance, with submarine cables typically following the most direct coastal route between major coastal locations, resulting in much lower delays delivering better performance for time-sensitive business, scientific, academic and consumer applications.
In terms of scalability, fibre-optic systems are extremely scalable - once installed, fibre-optic connectivity is relatively cheap to upgrade. Capacity upgrades continue to be possible, even on old submarine systems. In contrast, satellites, once deployed, cannot be physically upgraded.
On the cost side, with the build cost directly related to distance, fibre is much more cost-effective than satellite, where demand is high or growing fast and for meeting long-term needs, rather than low-demand, short-term requirements.
CommsMEA: What kind of applications do you expect to make use of the additional bandwidth?
Chris Wood: The consumer and business applications and devices that drive demand for Internet bandwidth already exist - 100 million YouTube videos are watched every day, with 20 hours of new video uploaded every minute of the day and night; Skype is responsible for 8% of international voice traffic and a growing amount of video, with up to 20 million users online at a time.
Facebook is the world's largest social network with over 400 million users and generates around 1% of total internet traffic; Virtual private networks have become the de facto standard for business communications; and iPhone and Blackberry are the preferred access devices for executives the world over despite generating up to 8 times as much traffic as a laptop accessing the same bandwidth. Consumers and business users in east, central and southern African are just waiting for the opportunity to turn on the tap, and academic and scientific institutions and other organisations are also ready to take advantage of this new capability.
Ryan Sher, CTO at WIOCC, said EASSy differs from other sub-Saharan systems because it will deliver connectivity to Europe via a direct route through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. "EASSy will be the first east coast system to connect directly to Europe, minimising the time taken for traffic from Africa to reach the key internet peering points in Europe and North America, and vice-vers," he said. "With the vast majority of international traffic being IP and internet-based, and with most African traffic destined for Europe and the US where the most popular content and applications are located, our ability to deliver content faster gives us and our customers a competitive edge in the market."