With About 11 Major Undersea Fiber Optic Cable Systems in West Africa, the Internet Access Gap between the “Haves” and “Have Nots” Endures.

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By Dr. Darren Wilkins | 0886703789\0777129092 | [email protected]

A few days ago, I give the Welcome remarks at the Internet Governance Student Forum held in the auditorium of the University of Liberia. I began my remarks by giving the audience a little bit of information about current developments in the global internet infrastructure, with focus on West Africa. I used that information to remind the audience that the Internet, which we know to be a collection of networks is now being built globally by diverse players including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon (not only the traditional telecom operators), to create a cyberspace for economic development. This “economic development” also means bridging the gap between the proverbial “haves” and the “have nots”.

In 2002, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan (deceased) said that “the gap between information ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is widening, and there is a real danger that the world’s poor will be excluded from the emerging knowledge-based global economy.”  That was eighteen years ago. Since then, significant progress has been made in the global ICT spectrum, especially in the area of broadband internet connectivity powered by newly built undersea fiber optic cable systems around the world. One area that has seen much growth in the number of undersea fiber optic cables is the West African Sub region.  

Even though a little late in the game, West Africa began experiencing undersea fiber optic connectivity in 2002 when the SAT-3 cable system incorporated landing points in Senegal, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, and Angola.  The first sub-Saharan undersea fiber optic cable system, SAT-2, had bypassed the entire west coast of Africa when it entered service in 1993. SAT-3 became a breakthrough for African telecommunications, which had previously subsisted on a piecemeal network of microwave links, coaxial cables, and a scattering of satellite earth stations.  It was the hope of many, that SAT3 would put the West African region on an equal technological footing with most of the rest of the world, providing an abundance of cheap bandwidth for research, education, healthcare, and commerce. Unfortunately, that did not happen and the story behind that is beyond the scope of this article.

Subsequent to SAT-3, many other projects emerged in West Africa with aiming at either breaking SAT-3’s throttlehold of the West African undersea capacity market or to increasing connectivity to markets that were not previously served.  Today, there are about 13 cable systems in the sub-region that provide broadband internet connectivity; a lot more than what we had in 2002. In the following paragraphs I briefly discuss each of these cable systems.

According to Submarine Cable Networks, there are about 13 undersea cable systems connecting West Coast of Africa to Asia, Europe and South America. These cable systems can be put into four categories: Category 1 includes cables connecting West Coast of Africa to Europe. This category includes: ACE (Africa Coast to Europe), WACS (West Africa Cable System), MainOne, SAT-3, Equiano (under construction) and 2Africa (under construction). Category 2 includes cables connecting West Coast of Africa to South America. These cables are: Atlantis-2, SAIL, SACS and Ellalink (under construction). Category 3 includes cables connecting West Coast of Africa to Asia. SAFE is the only cable system found in this category. And, Category 4 includes regional cables in West Coast of Africa. These regional cable systems include: NCSCS, GLO-1 and Ceiba-2. Let’s begin with SAT-3.  

SAT-3 – The South Atlantic Telecommunications cable no.3 (SAT-3) is a 13000km undersea cable connecting South Africa, West Africa, to Europe. The SAT-3 cable system has a total capacity of 120Gbps, which became ready for service in 2001. The earlier SAT-2 had been brought into service in the early 1990s and SAT-1 was constructed in the 1960s.

ACE – The Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) undersea cable spans 12,000 km along the west coast of Africa, connecting 18 countries (Liberia included). Two landlocked countries, Mali and Niger, connect to the ACE cable system through terrestrial network extensions. The ACE cable system costs a total investment of around U$700 million, with around $250 million financed by Orange group and its subsidiaries. The ACE cable system has a capacity of 5.12 Tbps using 40 Gbps DWDM technology.

WACS The West Africa Cable System (WACS) is a 14530 km undersea cable system connecting 15 countries, starting from South Africa and ending in London. It was initially designed with 128 wavelengths per fiber pair, running at 10 Gbps per wavelength, and initial design capacity of 5.12 Tbps. The initial investment of WACS is about US$650million. It is reported that MTN owns 11% of the initial capacity of the WACS with an investment of US$90 million. In May 2015, Huawei Marine completed an upgrade of WACS using 100Gbps technology, increasing the WACS system design capacity to 14.5Tbit/s. In Feb 2019, another upgrade completed with Huawei Marine’s solutions to support 32*100Gbps from South Africa to Portugal.

MainOne – MainOne cable system is a 7,000 km undersea cable with landing stations in Nigeria, Ghana and Portugal, and reserved branching units Morocco, Canary Islands, Senegal and Ivory Coast. MainOne cable system has been proven to provide capacity of at least 4.96 Tbps.

Equiano – Equiano cable system is the third private international cable owned by Google and the 14th subsea cable invested by Google. The Equiano cable system is state-of-the-art infrastructure based on space-division multiplexing (SDM) technology, with approximately 20 times more network capacity than the last cable built to serve this region. The Cable system is expected to go live in 2021 and it is assumed to be 12000km long and with a speed of 200Tbps.

2Africa – Originally called Simba, this cable system is a multi-stage undersea cable project led by Facebook. Its goal is to connect the entire continent of Africa to the internet, increasing accessibility while also driving down bandwidth prices significantly, which could make it easier to sign up new users. In May 2020, Facebook announced its partnership with leading African and global operators to build 2Africa undersea cable system.

NCSCS – The Nigeria-Cameroon Submarine Cable System (NCSCS) is an 1100 km undersea cable connecting Kribi in Cameroon with Lagos in Nigeria. The NCSCS cable system consists of two fiber pair, delivering 12.8 Tbps.

Glo-1 – The Globacom-1 (Glo-1) undersea cable system is a $250 million 9800 km undersea cable connecting Bude in UK to Lagos in Nigeria and the rest of West Africa. The Glo-1 cable has a capacity of 320 (32*STM-64), and upgraded to 2.5Tbps. Globacom activated the Glo-1 cable system for service in October 2010.

Ceiba-2  – The Ceiba-2 undersea cable system is a 500km undersea cable connecting Malabo and Bata in Equatorial Guinea, with a branching unit to Kribi in Cameroon, with a design capacity of 8 Tbps. It began operation since March 2017 equipped with an initial 40 Gbps lambda system, scalable to a 100 Gbps lambda system to meet future demand.         

SAIL – The South Atlantic Inter Link (SAIL) is a 6,000-km undersea cable system connecting Kribi, Cameroon with Fortaleza, Brazil,with a branch to Equatorial Guinea. The SAIL cable system has a bandwidth of 100 Gbit/s and a design capacity of 32 Tbps.

SACS – The South Atlantic Cable System (SACS) is an undersea cable system connecting Sangano in Angola and Fortaleza in Brazil, the world’s first undersea cable system across the South Atlantic. SACS cable has an initial design capacity of 40Tb/s (100Gb/s x 100 wavelengths x 4 fiber-pairs).

EllaLink – EllaLink is an undersea cable connecting Brazil and Europe, linking the major hubs of Sao Paulo and Fortaleza with Lisbon and Madrid. The main section of the EllaLink cable traveling from Sines to Fortaleza is approximately 5900 km. The EllaLink cable system delivers 72 Tbps of capacity over 4 fibre pairs. The EllaLink cable system is expected to be ready for service in early 2021.

SHARE – The Senegal Horn of Africa Regional Express (SHARE) Cable is a 720 km undersea cable from the African continent to the offshore islands of Cape Verde, connecting Dakar in Senegal and Praia in Cape Verde. The SHARE cable system has a design capacity of 16Tbit/s. The SHARE cable system will promote the development of the ICT Hub position of Senegal in West Africa and accelerate the development of the digital economy and innovative economy in the region. The SHARE cable system is supplied by Huawei Marine and is expected to be completed in Q1, 2021.

Let me end this article by saying this; between 2002 and now, millions, if not billions of dollars have been spent on the deployment of undersea cable systems in the sub-region. These resources were invested to achieve a goal that has not been fully achieved hitherto this write-up. I wonder, what is the problem? Is it market or regulatory? Could it be illiteracy? Or is it underutilization of these systems? Could it be that the sub-region is still struggling to embrace ICT as catalyst for economic development? Or should we be blaming the West for not helping us develop our nations? The answers to these questions, I leave to you. Until next week, let me say, CARPE DIEM!!!

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