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Can cables cross the chasm?

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Is there such a thing as too much bandwidth? Yes, if you’re trying to sell yet another undersea cable connecting Africa, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Can you have enough bandwidth? Not if you are ultra-connected and hyper-networked. But for the first time, it looks as if Africa may soon have too much international bandwidth.

Until a year ago, it was expected that the total international capacity on undersea cables for sub-Saharan Africa would peak at around 22 Terabits per second (Tbps) – more than ten times what was available just two years ago. Even at that stage, large question marks were placed over the role, use and impact of this capacity.

Since then, several more cables have been announced, this time connecting Africa to South America, and potentially doubling the already unprecedented capacity available. Of the newly proposed cables, only one has declared its capacity intentions, which has been put at 12Tbps, while one of the others has been claimed could go as high as 40Tbps. Even with only the smaller cable, it takes total capacity to 35Tbps.

Right now, eight undersea cables serve sub-Saharan Africa. Until 2008, there were only two: the SAT3-SAFE cable managed by Telkom, serving West and Southern Africa, and the Atlantis 2 cable, linking Cape Verde to Brazil.

Then came the great cable roll-out of 2009-2011, which has resulted in five new cables switched on by this year, namely the MainOne, Glo1 and ACE (Africa Coast to Europe) cables in West Africa, the TEAMS cable on the East Coast, and the EASSy cable down the East Coast to South Africa.

May 2012 sees the switch-on of the massive 5.12Tbps West Africa Cable System (WACS), which runs down the West coast of Africa and lands at Yzerfontein near Cape Town. The ACE cable was initially intended to be around 2.6Tbps, but plans were quickly upgraded to 5.12Tbps when WACS announced its intentions.

Is that enough capacity for you? Not for some.

In April 2011, eFive Telecoms announced they would build a South Atlantic Express Cable (SAex) cable linking South Africa to Angola, and from there to Brazil and the United States. A mere R3-billion is required for a cable proposed to have a 12.8Tbps capacity.

Then, in November 2011, an almost identical cable route was announced by WASACE Cable Company Worldwide Holding, but with even greater ambitions. The cable would link South Africa, Angola and Nigeria, to Brazil, then on to North America, and finally to Europe.

The proposed cost, $2-billion, will create a cable with a claimed capacity of 40Tbps, and is due for completion ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Not surprisingly, many question whether it will ever evolve from its initial incarnation as a mere PowerPoint presentation.

Even if it does, however, it will not take Africa into a new era of connectivity, nor of unlimited access and capacity.

To start with, total capacity should not be confused with capacity in use. The industry term for used capacity is lit fibre, as opposed to dark fibre, which is unused capacity that has not been switched on. At this stage, well under 1Tb of the potential 22Tb capacity serving Sub-Saharan Africa is in use.

The real benefits of this massive capacity do not lie in the capacity itself, but in the fact that it provides competition, which in turn forces down prices: it provides redundancy, which means we are not at the mercy of the elements or criminal activity when one line breaks: it improves latency, which means less of a signal delay for applications that need instant interactivity: and it entirely removes the traditional bottleneck of lack of international options.

Author Geoffrey Moore, in a groundbreaking analysis of technology life cycles, warned about a Chasm that products and services have to cross from early adopters to the mass market before they enter a true growth phase. Many fall into the chasm because they cannot meet expectations.

Cable capacity in Africa is in the process of crossing that chasm, and there should be no surprises when some of the operators, consortia or projects suddenly vanish without a trace.

* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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