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Cables, cables, cables

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Today, South Africa gets its fourth undersea cable connecting the country to the global Internet, when the West Africa Cable System (WACS) makes landfall near Cape Town. At a design capacity of 5.12 Terabits per second, it will double South Africa’s total bandwidth capacity. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK paints the picture.

Yzerfontein is an idyllic fishing village about an hour’s drive north of Cape Town. Come August, when wild flower season starts, tourists swarm in to enjoy the carpets of flowers and the longest uninterrupted stretch of beach on the South African coastline.

Today, 18 April, the beach will see an invasion of a very different kind. A thick, armour-plated fibre-optic cable will be dragged from the sea onto the sand, watched over by a ship off the shore and a clutch of overall-clad human beings on the beach.

Yzerfontein is the landing point for the long-awaited West Africa Cable System (WACS), which will more than double South Africa’s total Internet connectivity to the rest of the world. The cable made landfall on Namibia’s coast on February 8, and will also connect almost every country up the west coast of Africa.

The project was initiated by the Department of Public Enterprises (DoPE) about five years ago, when it was looking for a meaningful role for an entity it called Broadband Infraco. This was the vehicle they had created to manage the telecommunications infrastructure of Eskom and Transnet.

Between them, the two enterprises had owned a national fibre-optic network, running along all railway and power lines, which in effect meant they owned a broadband network that connected every city and large town in the country. It was meant to be part of the second network operator that we know today as Neotel, but the Government must have realised that would be giving away their crown jewels. So Infraco was born.

DoPE persuaded MTN, Vodacom, Neotel, and Telkom to invest in WACS as well, and in 2009 brought on board the likes of Angola Telecom, Telecom Namibia, and Portugal Telecom. That line-up means the cable is about more than just capacity. It will also mean near-unlimited access to bandwidth for South Africa’s leading telecoms operators. And that, in turn, must mean plummeting prices and a consumer bonanza.

The cable is only expected to go live in South Africa in August or September, around the time the wild flowers begin carpeting the desert near Yzerfontein, and the Namaqualand Daisies stir Western Cape tour operators from their slumber.

That will also herald be a huge wake-up call for operators, service providers and businesses that serve customers via the Internet. Demand for high-quality, low-cost services is growing as we find ourselves in the most rapid acceleration yet of the number of Internet users in South Africa.

Just in time to address this growth, WACS will be the fourth cable connecting Southern Africa to the global undersea cable network.

Until just three years ago, we had a single cable, the SAT3-SAFE cable, managed by Telkom. It supplied all of sub-Saharan Africa, and had a total capacity of 40 Gigabits per second (Gbps) ‚ around what a small town in the United States might use. That capacity has since been upgraded to 770 Gbps.

The second cable, the SEACOM cable, has a capacity of 1.28 Terabits per second (Tbps) ‚double the Telkom cable. Then there’s a third cable, which snaked in so quietly, most people don’t know it exists: the East African Submarine System (EASSy), with a design capacity of 3.84 Tbps. It’s three times the size of SEACOM, yet gets only a fraction of the media attention. The WACS cable will be a 5.12 Tbps monster ‚ making it the biggest cable serving the African continent.

Once WACS is switched on, the kind of widespread Internet outages of the kind we have seen in recent years will have only two excuses: incompetence or disaster.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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