WASACE: A new cable project that bundles together all of Africa’s fibre dreams

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There’s a rather cruel definition that does the rounds amongst those who watch these things: what’s an international fibre project? A person with a power-point presentation who goes to conferences. This week sees the launch of an extremely ambitious project to connect Africa, South America, North America and Europe: WASACE. Russell Southwood looks at its prospects and how it might fit into the connectivity landscape.

Africa has gone from having hardly any cables in 2000 to having no less than 9 cables that will now connect almost all African countries by 2012. Eritrea’s the exception but they’ve always been the exception.

However, despite the arrival of terabytes worth of capacity, there still exists “below-the-radar” a small but significant number of projects to build more international capacity to and from Africa. Interestingly the WASACE map of routes consolidates several of these dreams into a single project.

The key part of the project is a link to the USA via Brazil, which offers an alternative routing to North America that does not need to travel via Europe and the North Atlantic.  The idea is that south-south trade is increasing and one pole of that is the growth of trade between Brazil and Angola. Indeed, WASACE’s launch motto is – “WASACE: Because the world is changing”.

Other more long-term aspirations expressed in the map above include three continent-crossing terrestrial routes linking east and west coast countries: the Algeria-Nigeria link (at least three projects have had a run at that one); Tanzania to Congo-B via DRC (no takers for that one previously); and Djibouti via Sudan and Chad to Nigeria (something France Telecom talks wistfully about).

WASACE claims to be the first trans-Atlantic system to deploy the next-generation “100G” technology, with ten times the capacity of previous systems. Its promoters say that it will represent a total investment of billions of US dollars from investors on four continents (which must be USA, Brazil, Africa and Europe), including the international private equity investment firm VIP Must, represented by CEO Patrick Perrin, and the African Development Bank, represented by COO Raymond Zoupko, as well as Brazilian and other investors. VIP Must was established to invest in major global development projects. Angola has enough money to have talked of putting up its own satellite so why not a fibre link?

The project is headed by WASACE Cable Company Worldwide Holding a multinational development company represented by CEO Ramon Gil-Roldan of Spain. Project development will be managed by the David Ross Group, represented by CEO David Ross of the USA. Ross is a well-respected consultant and project manager who has had experience working on the continent before.

The key initial route connecting Brazil and Africa would have to rely on three different types of traffic: 1) direct traffic based on trade between Angola and Brazil; 2) Latin American carriers seeking a new route to the Far East; and 3) those wanting redundancy for blockages on other international routes. Does all this traffic add up to a business case? Probably not in the short to medium term but maybe, just maybe if you take a very optimistic long-term view. But all of those things will only work if those participating in the cable offer North Atlantic level prices. This means a major shift in attitudes from some of the coastal monopoly telcos that still remain in “high price, low volume” model, most notably Angola Telecom.

In the meantime, a bigger set of issues remains to be addressed. The cheap wholesale prices are at the landing station but in most places they have yet to be passed on to the end user, whether a consumer or a corporate. Bandwidth is over-priced on national fibre networks and local access is still nowhere near as prevalent as it should be. Mobile operators and ISPs are still hunting the corporate customers in great numbers but have yet to really engage with the idea of “at home” broadband Internet consumers. There’s a thirst for online content but not always enough bandwidth to access it. Operators are still acting as if bandwidth is in short supply. Once the back of these problems has been broken perhaps a rosier view can be taken of international fibre prospects beyond the existing terabytes….


On the Balancing Act You Tube Channel this week video clips from AfricaCom:

Nadeem, Juma, CEO, Mobipay on m-payments and social media in Tanzania

Scott Bain, Director of Sales, Range Networks
on Open BTS and low cost BTS for Africa

Doron Ben Sira, CEO, SkyVision
on changes in the satellite market in Africa

Arvind Rao, CEO, OnMobile on comparisons between African and Indian mobile content

Gour Lentell, CEO, biNu on this new feature phone platform taking off in Africa

Jonathan Osler, Managing Director-Africa, Intelsat
on its strategy in Africa

Marc Rennard EVP Orange AMEA
, on the challenges it is facing on the continent

Want up-to-the-minute breaking news? Balancing Act's Twitter feed provides a combination of breaking news for telecoms, Internet and broadcast in Africa, direct tweets from countries visited and access to the occasional rumours circulating. You can follow us on: @BalancingActAfr