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Sunday, 14 June 2009

Africa's Undersea Internet Cables

A wonderful visual map that brings to life the undersea internet cables around Africa - more detail including firms and data for each cable via Many Possibilities.


  1. Brilliant. Some interesting comparisons between the longest links on either side of the continent, namely WACS and SEACOM: (Key: L=Length, C=Cost, Cap=Capacity, O=Ownership)

    WACS: L=14,000km, Cap=3.84Tb/s, C=$600m, O=private consortium.

    SEACOM: L=13,700km, Cap=1.28Tb/s, C=$650m, O=govt consortium.

  2. Zedian,

    Is it just me or after reading into all these initiatives, I notice Zambia has no levers. We desperately need VODACOM to set up shop! MTN is part of the WACS consortium.

    How do you read where we are with these initiatives?

  3. Cho,

    Vodacom may well be around the corner, if are correct. In their analysis of the repoted Vivendi bid to takeover Zain's African operations, they said, the "report raises the interesting possibility that Vodafone may be involved, as the UK carrier jointly owns second-placed French cellco SFR with Vivendi."

    Yes, Zambia could do with a formidable operator with a proper track record to push standards. It appears Zain has been credit crunched.

    I understand that there's now fibre from Lusaka into Namibia and South Africa, courtesy of Zesco. Not sure about capacity; will feedback if and when I get some info. However, one ISP told me the pricing for the SA link is out of this world. So the main ISPs are currently going via Namibia, having ditched VSAT. They're all anxiously awaiting the East African SEACOM; due to launch in 24 days from today, though Zambia won't benefit until about end of year, am told.

  4. Zedian,

    I have never understood why ZESCO are taking forward that fibre optic project. Why ZESCO and not ZAMTEL?

    In the meantime, a blackout in Zed tonight thanks to ZESCO.

  5. Cho,

    Apparently Zesco is a licensed communications carrier. I guess they have the high voltage electricity towers, and want to increase revenue by putting it to other use such as carrying fibre optic cables.

    From page 9 of Zesco profile page:

    The state of the art optic fiber will replace the existing ground wire on the
    high voltage power lines. The fibre has been installed on the Lusaka to
    Livingstone 220kV line and on the Lusaka to Kariba North Bank 330kV
    lines. From Lusaka the optic fibre has also been installed on the 330kV line
    up to Kitwe and through to Luano near Chingola. The fibre will terminate
    at Lumwana. From Luano it has been connected to the fibre on the Luano
    – Kansanshi 330kV line. From Livingstone, the new fibre has been laid on the
    Victoria Falls – Katima Mulilo 220kV line.
    The optic fibre offers better clarity, has a higher bandwidth and thus it will
    offer a better channel of communication for the various services that ZESCO
    runs such as the Business Information System (BIS), voice and data services,
    teleprotection and control system.
    ZESCO is licensed with the Communications Authority as Carrier of Carriers.
    This license enables ZESCO to operate a commercial telecommunications
    network as a wholesaler to any organization within Zambia. This means
    other organizations will be availed the facility for their use. Prospective
    users are radio and television stations, internet companies, banks and other
    customers who need to transport data and information."

  6. Kafue,

    Thanks for the link!

    Is this arrangement common? Or do we think it is just an African or Zambian syndrome?

    I would have thought ZESCO has enough things to worry about instead of managing fibre optic cables. Power blackout in the nation again. Incidentally, scanning their website I found zero information.

  7. Cho,

    It seems to occur in other countries around the world as well.

    From their point of view, they need a communications system to control the power grid. If they can sell the excess capacity on this system, then it is a useful source of revenue for them.

  8. Thanks Kafue, that definitly clears up why Zesco would both with a high capacity fibre network. It has been a couple of decades since I handled non-residential electric cables (I used to set up event lighting), so I am sure that I am out of date. I am curious however about "replacing the ground" with fibre optics, as I was unaware that they would adequately transmit a high voltage surge. Do you happen to know what the relative conductivity of fibre optic cables is compared to traditional copper for safety grounding purposes?

  9. Cho/Kafue,

    Yes, fibre optic cable over power lines is now common technology, which was pioneered in the 90s. The idea is that it is easier to constuct a fibre network over power lines than digging trenches, especially for long distances.

    In the UK, it was pionered by a company called Energis, which I believe is now part of the Cable & Wireless group. Energis was a spin-off from UK National Grid company, as confirmed by Wikipedia: "The Company was formed in 1992 as Telecom Electric by way of a demerger from the UK's National Grid Company. Its national optical fibre network was partially deployed via the overhead power transmission network of the grid."

    I suppose the demgerger mentioned there was in order, as Cho expressed in Cho's surprise, and I also tend to agree with that, because the two industries are completely poles apart, despite the fact that the power grid facilitates the fibre optic cables.

    As a network operator, Energis carries a lot of traffic for ISPs, corporate entities, and the media, including the BBC.

    One of my professors actually came from Energis, as a by the way thing.

    In Zambia the technology was first introduced by CDC around 2001, perhaps not surprising as they came from the UK.

    At the time, Zesco had these 2Mbps digital microwave links they were using for telemetry. I recall having a chat with the then head of the communications wing of Zesco about them uograding their telemetry links so as to sell of excess bandwidth. He was talking of it being implemented over microwave.

    I got excited because at that time the company I worked for in Lusaka was implementing some corporate branch networking for some bank customners, who didn't want to go the expensive VSAT route. We were using Zamtel mircowave links at the time, and we were also making enquiries with Telecel and Zain (then Zamcell) as they'd put up some good microwave links along the line of rail, so our hope was competition would push prices down.

    So Zesco is essentially a network operator, as distinguished form a service provider, in that, like Energis, they provide bandwidth to service providers such as ISPs. I personally like the concept because it creates a vlaue chain so that small service providers do not have to lay their own network infrastructure across the country, which is far too costly.

    In fact, this shared-network concept is really taking off in the West. Mobile companies are now sharing each others networks, which if they had done in the first place, perhaps would have impacted the end users' cost of calling, and also would have reduced time to market for any new market entrant. Look at the way the UK's service provider 3 has struggled to extend coverage outside major cities.

    I understand Singapore only has about one network operator with almost half a dozen or so mobile service providers all riding on that network. In the UK T-Mobile, Vodafone and O2 are into network sharing.

    As for Zesco Networks, they could consider delinking from the parent company, or becoming a subsidiary or something, because their operations differ significantly from the company's main operations.

  10. Yakima,

    I am not a technical expert, so I do not know about the fibre optic cable capability of transmitting high voltage surges.

  11. Yakima,

    Wikipedia says, "The phase conductor also carries a bundle of optical fibres within the steel armor wire, so the system supplies telecommunications as well as power."

    You can read the rest of the entry here.

  12. Thanks Kafue, looks like we hit a major pocket of personal expertise from Zedian! Thanks so much Zedian for that link, it answered all my questions and more. I am seriously feeling the beauty of the blogosphere right now (we aren't only useful in Iranian revolutions, but also quiet information revolutions everywhere). CNN can eat our dust ;).

  13. You're most welcome, Yakima, and thanks for the generous words. I'm also very much enjoying the blogs, as I find the info and most importantly analysis from the experts, rather refreshing. Mainstream media is struggling to keep up, as you pointed out.

    Now, if I may just take everyone back to my original comment on this thread, I hinted at something which I hoped would trigger some analysis from you folks.

    The SEACOM project covers a slightly shorter distance, offers about a third of WACS' capacity, but costs around $50m more than WACS! SEACOM is a govt consortium while WACS is privately owned. Any comment from anyone?

  14. I saw that Zedian, but I guess I just assumed that the SEACOM project was older and therefore somewhat obsolete (governments tend to undertake such projects earlier than the private sector). Did I assume wrong?

  15. I wonder how much older. Will try to dig up some info. As far as completion is concerned, they're only two years apart, and I wondered if that could result in a $50m difference. That is a lot of money, especially if you're borrowing it, and you're in Africa.

    If your assumption is correct, then I would question whether due diligence was carried out, with regard to assessing present and future technologies and how they would affect a project of such magnitude.

    I'm not hell bent on finding fault with the govt consortium; just that the discrepancy appeared unjustified on first impressions.

  16. Zedian,

    Indeed a mere two years would not seem long enough for technology advances to bring costs down so drastically (though I suppose there is the possibility that the WACS cable was laid via some proprietary process which had been under development for some time and not available to the SEACOM consortium). I suppose it would be helpful to compare both projects with others of similar scope and time frame, and see which one appears to be more anomalous. It would certainly come as no surprise to find that the government project has been "gold plated" especially in the construction phase. Where the private projects tend to do their "gold plating" is on the back end, when profits are distributed, operating contracts awarded, and stock options excercised. Presumably, both could be avoided if the projects were appropriately structured and adequately overseen.


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