Expectations are exceptionally high as the countdown to the July 23 launch of the Seacom undersea fibre-optic telecommunications cable draws ever closer – indeed, it’s less than a week away.
But there is also no question that its arrival is encumbered by the level of expectation trailing what it promises: bandwidth capacity of 1,28 Tb/s, which will meet surging Internet demand in Southern and East Africa, enable high-definition television (TV), peer-to-peer networks, Internet Protocol TV, and all at significantly lower prices.
Arguably, those expectations were only slightly tempered by recent delays to what will be the first submarine cable to complete construction along the eastern route of Africa to Europe.
The cable was initially set to go live on June 27. However, delays were experienced in early April and May, when the cable-laying ships came under threat from Somali pirates as they attempted to lay the section of cable stretching from Kenya up the African coast to meet the connection from India.
The company had to hire gunships to protect the cable-laying ships, and had to keep the progress of the project under wraps.
But the delay in lighting up the system was met with little admonition among industry observers, who also used it as an occasion to offer up dollops of realism around what this new infrastructure can be expected to deliver, and by when.
“I am okay with Seacom slipping a few weeks. If they only miss their deadline by two or three weeks, it will still be a remarkable achievement,” says Shuttleworth Foundation telecoms fellow Steve Song. He adds that other sub-Saharan African undersea cable initiatives could “take a page from Seacom’s book in terms of transparency and communication to the public”.
“One month’s delay is not a major issue. We have been waiting for it for so long that another month doesn’t really make a difference,” notes World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck.
Further, Goldstuck stresses that the full benefits of the system will not be truly felt until the national terrestrial fibre-optic network, which supports the Seacom cable in bringing the capacity inland, is completed.
In January, Neotel and MTN announced that they would be collaborating to build this terrestrial fibre-optic backbone network. The first phase of this almost R2-billion project would link Durban and Johannesburg, and is expected to be completed by the end of 2009. The link between Johannesburg and Cape Town would be completed by mid-2010. In total, about 5 000 km of fibre would be laid in the ground, connecting South Africa’s major cities.
Seacom provides wholesale bandwidth, so rather than selling capacity to end-use consumers, companies such as Neotel, Inter- net Solutions, the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa and Vodacom-owned Gateway Communications, as anchor tenants, will buy a portion of bandwidth and make this available to their customers.
Seacom says that if end-users are able to access the Internet at international broadband speeds, the African market for inter- national bandwidth will grow from today’s 10 Gb/s, to over 800 Gb/s. The company adds that, currently, international bandwidth available to each Internet end- user is limited to a few kilobits at the best of times, which is why downloading information-rich content is a frustratingly slow, if not impossible, task.
PRICE REDUCTIONS, BUT NOT OVERNIGHT
In 2007, Seacom president Brian Herlihy said that bandwidth pricing in South Africa could drop by 90% after the arrival of Seacom.
He argues now that operators of the existing cable delivering bandwidth to South Africa, the SAT-3 cable, have already lowered prices by about 50% in anticipation of the increased competition from Seacom. And he is confident that there is still room for bandwidth to become about 40% cheaper.
What South African consumers are now becoming accustomed to hearing from most Internet service providers (ISPs) is that capacity will increase, but price reductions are unlikely in the near future – so one will get more ‘bang for your buck’.
iBurst head of commercial Steve Briggs says that while the cable system promises to provide some relief from high international bandwidth prices over the medium to long term, it will not be a ‘silver bullet’ and lead to a dramatic overnight drop in broadband prices when it goes live.
“The data cost is only one aspect of the overall cost of Internet use. The access cost is independent of the data cost, and the access cost depends on the cost of infrastructure, and end-user equipment, whereas the data cost is all about that connectivity,” explains Goldstuck.
Already, Telkom has announced improved data cap offerings to its customers, following the arrival of the Seacom cable, and the competition that it brings. At the company’s financial year-end results, it noted that packages with 2-Gb caps would be lifted to 3 Gb, and 3-Gb caps would be raised to 5 Gb.
“That was exactly what we expected to see – the data caps will start going up. In fact, over the next three years, we see the typical 3-Gb cap becoming as much as 30 Gb. And some people are even suggesting that caps will go away altogether and it will become irrelevant as data capacity becomes plentiful,” adds Goldstuck.
A bandwidth cap limits the transfer (or download) of a specified amount of data over a period of time. ISPs usually apply a cap when a channel, intended to be shared by many users, becomes, or may become, overloaded.
The possibility of data caps disappearing altogether is a desired goal at the end of the ‘evolutionary path’ of telecoms on the African continent.
“People have to understand that we are now on a three-year evolutionary path and it’s coincidental, and also a factor of what everyone has been building up to, that all the undersea cables will be built over the next three years. The new terrestrial networks will also kick in over the next three years – not only in South Africa, both urban and national backbone, but throughout Africa – these terrestrial networks are being laid down,” emphasises Goldstuck.
In expectation of the bandwidth that Seacom will bring, landlocked countries, such as Uganda, have invested in terrestrial networks, to benefit from inter- national connectivity. Previously, countries along the East Coast of Africa have largely relied on telecoms from expensive satellite sources.
Over the next three years, should all the fibre-optic sub- marine projects on the radar (seven in total) be delivered, the international bandwidth through undersea cables to Africa will increase to an incredible 12,4 Tb/s.
Currently, the only cable with international connectivity for Africa is the SAT-3 cable, with its 120 Gb/s of capacity. In South Africa this cable lands at Melkbosstrand and is largely controlled by Telkom.
The seven new undersea cable projects include: Seacom; the 1,4-Tb/s Eastern Africa Sub-marine Cable System; the East African marine system (Teams) cable, which connects Kenya and the United Arab Emirates, with a capacity of between 120 Gb/s and 1,28 Tb/s; the $600-million West African Cable System, with a capacity of 3,84 Tb/s; the 1,92-Tb/s MainOne cable linking Portugal along the West African coast to Nigeria; the $159-million GLO-1 cable with an expected 240 Gb/s of capacity; and the fourth West African cable, known as ACE, also with a capacity of 1,92 Tb/s.
All these cables are expected to be completed by the end of 2011, with Seacom leading the way, followed by Teams, which will be switched on in September if all goes according to plan.
The construction of the Seacom system began with a thorough planning phase.
“Once the conceptual project route was decided, a detailed marine survey of this route was undertaken. This survey yielded the exact topography and geology of the submarine terrain along the proposed route and allowed for a detail design of the cable to be done with various routing options in territorial waters,” Seacom construction manager Christophe Albert tells Engineering News.
While this was happening, the process for a multitude of permits and impact assessments was started and the cable route layout was fine-tuned accordingly.
The cable was then designed to the final surveyed and approved route and was built to measure. In the meantime, the landing stations was prepared and built to be ready to receive the cable on schedule.
There are landing stations in Mtunzini, in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa; in Maputo, Mozambique; in Toliary, Madagascar; in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania; in Mombasa, Kenya; in Djibouti; as well as in Mumbai, India; and at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. These then connect to Europe from Marseilles to Paris, and then on to London.
Landing sites that were not disturbed by commercial activities were selected.
Once manufactured, the cable was then reeled on specialist ships, deployed along the planned route and connected to the completed cable stations. A thorough testing phase was then undertaken before going into commercial service.
Seacom opted to have the entire marine component (route survey, cable design, cable manufacture, cable laying, terminal equipment supply and system commissioning) under a single turnkey contract with Tyco Communications.
The permitting process and the delivery of the landing stations were contracted separately and managed directly by Seacom teams.
“The construction has been a fascinating process,” notes Herlihy, who expresses his disappointment in the delay of the project as a result of piracy, but stresses the concern for the safety of the ship and its crews.
The Seacom project has a strong emphasis on development in the Southern and Eastern African regions and, by providing low-cost bandwidth, hopes to encourage the growth of new and existing industries, as well as education, healthcare, conservation, and egovernment.
Albert notes that the construction industry is also one of the affected industries that will benefit from Seacom. “As an example, engineers will be able to electronically send large computer-aided design renditions or project presentations at speed to rival European connections, and won’t be dreading the thought of receiving an email with 50 Mb of MS Project scheduling or a 78-Mb project report from a remote site, because the international bandwidth will be available to make this happen at unparalleled speeds.”
Herlihy says that, initially, Seacom expected more than 50% of the demand for bandwidth to come from South Africa; however, the company is seeing well over 50% of its demand coming from East Africa, where entrepreneurs are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the international bandwidth supply.
He adds that extending the cable along the West African coast as well as connecting East African islands in the network, is on the radar. Connecting to West Africa allows the company to operate a ring – the ultimate goal that Seacom is working towards. Most notably, a link to the Gulf region is suggested for the near future.