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Regional focus: Africa’s new submarine cables
Submarine cable connectivity in Africa on the rise
 
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The year 2010 marks a special year for Africa. It is the year in which an unprecedented number of submarine cables went live for the first time. The long-awaited EASSy cable went live on 16 July 2010, while Main One launched barely a week afterwards. The third quarter of 2010 is expected to see the launch of Glo One, the fourth quarter the go-live of the Lower Indian Ocean Network (LION) off the East coast, while the West African Cable System (WACS) cable should be launched either this year or in 2011, depending on how smoothly deployment proceeds (Table 1).

Sub-Saharan Africa now accounts for just 0.2 per cent of total global international bandwidth (Table 2), a share that has remained stable since at least 2004. Extended connectivity through submarine cables promises to change this, however, with a total capacity of 15.7 Terabits per second planned by mid-2012. This imminent explosion in cable capacity heralds a new era of connectivity for the continent, promising greater international Internet bandwidth, faster Internet access, more reliable connectivity, access to new and advanced services and, potentially, a reduction in prices for communication services.

The investments being made in these cables signify something far more profound than just added bandwidth — they represent renewed confidence and optimism in Africa’s digital future. Complex investment consortia have been put in place to fund the roll-out of these submarine cables. The investments are large and the time horizons long, but the prospects for strong future growth are very promising.

Regional shares of international bandwidth have remained relatively stable since at least 2004. Today, Europe and the Americas still account for the lion’s share, at around 87 per cent of total global international Internet bandwidth (Table 2). Using the measure of international bandwidth per Internet user, someone living in the Americas had access to nearly ten times the amount of international bandwidth as an Internet user living in Africa, while an Internet user living in Europe had access to nearly forty times as much as an African Internet user.

Africa has one of the fastest annualized growth rates in total international bandwidth (82.3 per cent). But from 2005 to 2009, Europe’s growth in total international bandwidth per Internet user (46.3 per cent) has nearly kept pace with Africa’s rate of growth (52.1 per cent), even though Europe enjoys much higher absolute levels of bandwidth. The added capacity in international Internet bandwidth set to come into service through the submarine cable system could significantly boost Africa’s regional share of international Internet bandwidth.

This explosion in international connectivity for Africa is providing fresh impetus for driving investment in domestic backbone networks and local connectivity. Investments in international connectivity need to be matched by investments in domestic backbone infrastructure. Of 49 sub-Saharan African countries, 32 now have their capital cities connected to international fibre networks, and many of these countries have either completed a backbone to connect their major cities or have plans to do so by 2012. ITU continues to monitor Africa’s connectivity through the goals established at the Connect Africa Summit held in Kigali, Rwanda, in October 2007. Assessments to date demonstrate tangible progress in the expansion of domestic backbone networks.

Price reductions do not follow automatically from the landing of new submarine cables. Experience suggests that countries with incumbent monopolies or with only one international landing station are less likely to see competitive price reductions for international bandwidth than those with two or more landing stations controlled by competing organizations.

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For example, following Angola’s connection to the SAT-3/WASC service in 2002, Angola Telecom reduced the cost of wholesale bandwidth on the fibre route twice — once by 20 per cent (from around USD 20 000 per Mbit/s per month duplex to Portugal, to around USD 16 000) in June 2005, and subsequently by a further 10 per cent (to around USD 14 000) in October 2006. In Ghana, connection to the SAT-3/ WASC cable brought about some decreases in the cost of international connectivity, although prices still remained relatively high.

In contrast, Kenya’s connection to TEAMS and SEACOM in 2009 saw prices fall from around USD 1900 per Mbit/s per month in 2009 to levels of around USD 600 per Mbit/s per month, with further price falls expected. In Cameroon, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) report on open access communications infrastructure notes that the SAT-WASC cable has had a number of positive effects on competition in the telecommunication sector as a whole, helping drive down prices and stimulate the introduction of new products and services.

Where prices fall, corresponding growth in demand often follows on fairly rapidly. For example, demand for international telecommunications and data connectivity is projected to grow by a factor of ten over the next five years for Kenya, according to the Communications Commission of Kenya. If greater international connectivity is linked with reductions in prices for communication services, much of Africa is likely to show similar growth in demand.

The growth of the information society in Africa and elsewhere is not just about the installation of greater bandwidth and international connectivity. For the inhabitants of any continent to reap the full rewards of greater international connectivity, it is essential that the installation of greater capacity is accompanied by policy measures to put in place and sustain an enabling environment, so the benefits can be fully realized. For then we shall see the dawn of a new era in a truly global information society of available and affordable Internet access for all.

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