Sub-Sahara Africa submarine capacity to exceed 20 terabits in 2012

The past few years have witnessed a spike in the submarine cable construction that began a decade ago with projects to circle Africa with international cables and provide terrestrial links to landlocked countries. Telecom operators betting on submarine cable to help launch vital and state-of-the art services in sub-Sahara Africa have invested in systems that will give the region more than 20 terabits of international fiber capacity by the end of 2012 – a jump from 200 Gbps a decade ago.

Jan 9th, 2012

The past few years have witnessed a spike in the submarine cable construction that began a decade ago with projects to circle Africa with international cables and provide terrestrial links to landlocked countries. Telecom operators betting on submarine cable to help launch vital and state-of-the art services in sub-Sahara Africa have invested in systems that will give the region more than 20 terabits of international fiber capacity by the end of 2012 – a jump from 200 Gbps a decade ago.

“Africa has been our biggest market for the past three years,” said Leigh Frame, COO of Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks.

At the end of the year, Africa will be well connected and not need any new major international submarine systems for awhile, says Frame. Looking beyond 2012, Frame does not see any single region experiencing a wave of submarine cable demand on the scale of Africa. That said, there will likely be a mix of projects of in Asia and the Americas where operators will need capacity for existing routes or their own systems to expand their business.

“Many operators want autonomy and control over their systems,” Frame explained. “This is the case in India for companies like Reliance, Bharti, and Tata.”

In Africa too, regional strategies have sparked the latest submarine systems. Alcatel-Lucent is supplying and installing two major high-capacity systems on the west coast of Africa -- the West Africa Cable System (WACS) and Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) -- and a third called Lower Indian Ocean Network (LION2) on the east coast of Africa, which will be operational later this year. New 40-Gbps WDM technology will give WACS a total capacity of 5.12 Tbps, ACE 5.12 Tbps, and LION2 a maximum of 1.28 Tbps.

The new systems will provide needed connections to international submarine systems, first-time fiber connections to many countries, as well as new and cheaper capacity to countries connected by older cables that are reaching full capacity.

Foreign operators such as France Telecom-Orange and local companies are driving the bandwidth demand behind the cable projects. Such operators expect to leverage the subsea links to expand into underserved and greenfield markets with services such as mobile telephony, data over mobile, telemedicine, e-banking, and e-learning. With more than a billion inhabitants and low mobile phone penetration of under 50 percent, there is considerable potential growth in the African telecom market.

For example, under its “Conquêtes 2015” group strategy, France Telecom Orange aims to become a leading operator in Africa and the Middle East and double its revenue in the two regions by 2015. At the end of 2011, Orange had a presence in 19 countries in the two regions and more than 67 million customers.

“International connectivity and reduced bandwith costs are key to our strategy,” says Philippe Recco, deputy director, Network Strategy & Submarine Systems, France Telecom Orange. “We are focusing on emerging markets. We need to be able to respond to broadband needs and only submarine cables can do this.”

Alcatel-Lucent is building ACE and LION2 for France Telecom Orange and its subsidiaries. The 17,000-km-long ACE system will serve 23 countries between France and South Africa and be the first submarine cable to land in Gambia, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Sao Tomé & Principe, and Sierra Leone. It will connect via terrestrial fiber networks the landlocked countries of Mali and Niger.

ACE also will provide additional capacity and an alternative backup system to countries already served by the SAT3-WASC-SAFE cable, and an additional western route for traffic from France Telecom Orange’s subsidiaries in Reunion Island, and eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean.

For the ACE project, France Telecom S.A. and its subsidiaries Côte d'Ivoire Telecom, Orange Cameroon, Orange Guinea, Orange Mali, Orange Niger and Sonatel created major partnerships within an international consortium.

On the east coast of Africa, Alcatel Lucent is building LION2 for a consortium that includes France Telecom-Orange and its subsidiaries Mauritius Telecom, Orange Madagascar, and Telkom Kenya, as well as other service providers: Emtel, Societe Reunionnaise du Radiotelephone, and STOI Internet.

The 3,000-km-long LION2 cable will extend the existing LION cable to Kenya (Telkom Kenya) via the island of Mayotte. LION currently links Madagascar to the rest of the world via Réunion Island and Mauritius.

Meanwhile, a diverse group including major mobile operators such as MTN of South Africa formed a consortium to build the 14,000-km WACS systems which will go from the UK to Portugal and down the west coast of Africa to South Africa.

The WACS consortium comprises 12 parties: Angola Cables, Broadband Infraco, Cable & Wireless, Congo Telecom, MTN, Office Congolais des Postes et Télécommunications, Portugal Telecom/Cabo Verde Telecom, Tata Communications/Neotel, Telecom Namibia, Telkom SA, Togo Telecom, and Vodacom.

WACS will land in Namibia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, and the Canary Islands. It will provide Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo, and the Republic of Congo with their first direct access to international submarine networks.

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