Africa ONE brings high-capacity fiber connectivity to continent and beyond

In response to a challenge from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to provide state-of-the-art fiber-optic connectivity among all the African nations, as well as between Africa and the rest of the world, Africa ONE is on the brink of reality. Africa ONE Ltd., a privately held company and developer of the proposed 39,000-km undersea fiber-optic system, announced the network recently.

The cable will ring the continent of Africa in a configuration predominantly designed to address the issue of automatic restoration. The ring configuration is essentially a set of connected point-to-point cables having twice the requisite transmission capacity. Shore-based Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH) transmission equipment will provide automatic failure detection and switchover control for the entire ring. The configuration extends the basic capability of the ring with the addition of a branching unit. The branched-ring structure retains the self-healing nature of the ring but provides independent connections to the hub, requiring only a single landing point per terminal.

Africa ONE is the only system planned to provide access to every African country. Its original design connects 27 coastal countries, and plans include offering access to every interior country through a coastal landing point. Africa ONE will also connect to the Global Crossing Ltd. network with its planned connections to 155 cities worldwide.

Africa ONE's vision of connecting Africa to the world was first proposed in 1993. The original concept was developed by AT&T Submarine Systems Inc., which promoted the plan from 1994 through 1997, when AT&T sold its submarine systems business unit to Tyco International Ltd. In 1997, Tyco withdrew its support for Africa ONE in keeping with the company's business strategy of being a supplier of cable systems only and not a developer. Public promotion of the project was suspended, but a number of key players in the U.S. and Africa continued working to bring the project to fruition.

"Meetings of African carriers were held in 1998 and 1999 under the auspices of the ITU," says Patricia Bagnell, executive vice president of Africa ONE. "Those meetings confirmed the African carriers' interest in Africa ONE and mandated that the project go forward as a privately financed cable."

That mandate was fulfilled and last June, Africa ONE Ltd., owned by Columbia Technologies of New Jersey, was announced. The company was organized under the laws of Liberia with agency operations in New York City. At the same time, Lucent Technologies (Murray Hill, NJ) was named preferred supplier of equipment and software for Africa ONE. Global Crossing, based in Hamilton, Bermuda, was contracted to procure, install, and manage the cable system in contracts exceeding $100 million.

Lucent expects to supply the project with its WaveStar OLS 80G dense wavelength-division multiplexing (DWDM) system--capable of transmitting up to 40 Gbits/sec of information--and 39,000 km of its TrueWave undersea fiber-optic cable. Global Crossing will provide marine operations and act as project manager, overseeing construction, installation, and implementation of the system. The new marine fleet that Global Crossing is purchasing from Cable and Wireless will handle marine operations for the entire project.

"The advantages and the industry expertise that these two companies bring are enormous," says Bagnell. "Lucent's participation will ensure the newest and best technology at the lowest cost. Global Crossing will provide interconnection to its global network and the advantage of city-to-city connectivity and end-to-end pricing."

Is there really a need for the availability of high-capacity global communications capability for all African countries? The question of need at this stage of the global connectivity race is questionable. With major problems in developing even local telephone communications in some underdeveloped African countries, is it truly the optimum time to deploy cutting-edge technologies into all the regions?

These questions become even more relevant considering two such cables are being planned for ringing the African continent. Although not identical, the SAT-3/WASC/SAFE submarine cable systems also plan major high-capacity connectivity in and around the continent as well as links to Europe and Asia. This cable has landings in Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Angola, and South Africa. Although Africa ONE has not cinched up all the deals for landing points, there is bound to be some overlap in these two systems.

"If any of the proposed African systems get built, that's another under-served region that will begin to see some growth, although that's a big 'if,' " says Stacy Yates, an analyst with Newport, RI-based KMI Corp. "I can see one system going in, but I don't know about the need for more right now."

Bagnell, however, believes Africa ONE has done its homework. She points out that in 1994, AT&T commissioned Monitor Corp. to do a feasibility study for Africa ONE. The study, using conservative traffic growth models, confirmed the economic viability of Africa ONE.

"It's important to note that the Monitor study was performed before the explosive growth of the Internet and the emergence of new carriers around the world," says Bagnell. "The pent-up demand for capacity throughout Africa was recognized by Monitor in 1994. The growth in international telecommunications since then speaks for itself. International carriers want to do business in Africa and are entering that market in unprecedented numbers."

Bagnell also sees the SAT-3/WASC/SAFE cables primarily serving the needs of South Africa rather than the entire continent, as is proposed by Africa ONE. It's also important, she says, to realize the benefit of connectivity with the Global Crossing system for links to major international cities.

"Carriers will choose from which system to buy capacity based on technology, capacity, connectivity, and price," says Bagnell. "We are confident that Africa ONE will satisfy their needs in every category. I would also add one comment about SAT-3WASC/SAFE: Telkom South Africa participated in Africa ONE's initial development. It was only in 1996 that Telkom South Africa withdrew its support for Africa ONE and began to develop SAT-3. Since that time, we've proposed integrating the two systems. We continue to believe that all parties would benefit significantly from an integration of Africa ONE and SAT-3WASC-SAFE."

As Africa begins to experience the same changes in telecommunications as the rest of the world, such as privatization, regulatory reform, new entrants into the market, competition, and the growth of the Internet, the growth of telecommunications on the continent appears likely. As international carriers and investors recognize these changes, they are discovering opportunities.

"My vision for telecommunications in Africa is simple," says Bagnell. "I want the people of the continent to have access equal to the access enjoyed by people elsewhere in the world to the commercial, developmental, and financial benefits to be derived from full participation in the global information age economy of the 21st century.

As I have said, the telecom sector in Africa is developing dynamically and is poised for even more dramatic growth. By providing connectivity to the entire continent, Africa ONE will contribute to achieving that vision. Africa ONE will be the engine that drives the African renaissance."

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