Fibre backbone cables spreading across the continent should lead to cheaper traffic between countries

Top Story

With the arrival of six international fibre cables over the next two years, the race is on to provide national fibre backbones and competitive connections between countries. There have been for announcements this week that show that the arrival of these international cables has sparked a wave of fibre build-outs. These new routes should lead to both cheaper national backhaul rates and the switching of inter-country traffic from international to regional routings. Russell Southwood looks at what happened this week and what it means for carriers and bandwidth users.

There were four national backbone and inter-country announcements this week affecting Cameroon, the Indian Ocean islands, Rwanda and Togo. All are part of the wider pattern of African carriers gearing up to make the change from having very little fibre capacity to having more than they know what to do with.

This week the none-too-effective Government incumbent Camtel announced that it will build a 5,600 kms national fibre backbone across the country. At present there are only two fibre routes with the romantic names D1 (Douala-Edéa-Nkondjock-Matomb-Mbankomo-Yaoundé) and D2 (Douala-Mbanga-Nkongsamba-Bafang-Baham-Bafoussam-Bandjoun-Bangangté-Bafia-Obala-Yaoundé).

The first phase of the project is to extend the fibre network to the country’s ten region capitals. The budget for the project is FCFA 76 billion and with contracters Sagem and Alcatel, Camtel anticipates that by 2012 it will have laid 3,000 kilometres. According to Camtel, one of the objectives of the project is to lower its national backbone operating costs.

For budget reasons, some of the links will be microwave initially: for example, between Buea and Bamenda, and also between Bafoussam and Ngaoundéré. It aims to lay the cable in trenches alongside roads, particularly as part of the national road building programme. No mention has been made of the existing fibre that the Cameroonian power utility already has that it would like to licence. Why not?

In the south, there will be two extensions; one to Mbalmayo and the other to Nyong. These will then link to three other countries: Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and Equatorial Guinea. The World Bank is providing financial assistance for this part of the work as well also funding links to Chad, Central African Republic (which has thus far been on no-one’s list to connect to) and DRC.

This week Orange Madagascar (in consortium with Mauritius Telecom and its parent company) announced that it had completed the Lion cable project that from a landing station at Toamasina will connect the island to several of its neighbours and on to the east coast cable landing stations. The 1,800 km cable offers 1.3 Tbps connects Madagascar, Reunion and Maritius. It is promising to cut existing tariffs by five times. Although essentially a France Telecom cable, it will be forced to be competitive.

In Reunion this has been imposed by the French regulator ARCEP which bought down the price of capacity on the SAFE cable to US$410 per mbps and in Mauritius, the Government has said that any licensed landing station will have to be offered on an open access basis. Talks are proceeding in Madagascar as to what basis it will be licensed on.

Also this week the Minister in Charge of Science and Technology in the Office of the President in Rwanda, Prof. Romain Murenzi made much hoopla about connecting to Uganda and Kenya to receive the new international capacity from Kenya. There are two routes to Uganda (Rwandatel and MTN) and both will be connected shortly. There is a project (again World Bank funded - US$24 million) to connect to Burundi which will also build a national fibre backbone. Rwanda itself has employed Korea Telecom to build its national fibre backbone.Rwanda is represented in the EASSy consortium by MTN Rwanda and Rwandatel and Altech will be the national POP for the Seacom cable.

Finally at the local level Togo Telecom becomes the second telco (after Mauritius Telecom) to implement a fibre-to-the-curb solution: the contractor, ECI Telecom will put in place the network architecture to build out to 300 cabinets across the country. There are also two fibre to the home solutions that are currently building: 21st Century in Lagos and Algerie Telecom. These solutions will take high levels of bandwidth direct to the company and the home, enabling applications like IP-TV.

Two things should flow from these kinds of developments. Firstly, with international bandwidth arriving at the landing station, the prices offered must cause both carriers and their customers (particularly the larger ones) to reflect on the strange disparity between the relatively cheap international bandwidth (on a dollar per kms basis) and the much higher cost of national backbone capacity on the same basis. Arguably terrestrial fibre capacity is more expensive to operate than international submarine capacity but not that much more expensive.

Secondly, the current default position for traffic routing between African countries- particularly for voice traffic - reflects the reality referred to above. It is cheaper to route via London and New York and the higher your volume of minutes, the better your marginal discounts. However, with an increasing number of cross-border routes and with a small number for which there are competitive operators, it must soon be time to reconsider the default position.

For if operators can get regional fibre prices down to the same or below the international level, they will not have to pay for international fibre or satellite capacity in dollars, thus making potentially significant savings for themselves. A stronger US dollar simply reinforces this argument.