The East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy) has concluded interconnection agreements with three cable systems to carry traffic between Africa, Europe and Asia. It has also included the Comoros in its planned fibre network, to which 29 African entities are party.

The cables are SAFE/SAT3, SEA ME-WE and FLAG, according to John Sihra, the coordinator of EASSy and a director with Tanzanian operator ZANTEL. The SAT3/WASC cable runs from Portugal, through Spain, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Angola to South Africa. SAFE begins from South Africa, to La Reunion, Mauritius, on to India and Malaysia. FLAG covers the Indian sub-continent and is extending to the Middle East and North Africa, while SEA ME-WE runs in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sihra and other members of the EASSy steering committee ended a three-day meeting in Kampala, Uganda last Friday June 8 to finalise legal paperwork for the interconnection deals and the inclusion of the Comoros, among others. They also harmonised the various legal documents they had drawn up since they signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in December 2003.

Sihra and other parties to the EASSy MoU told Fibre for Africa that the EASSy project cost remained $235 million, and reiterated that the cable would be operated along open access principles.

"Even 10 years from now other operators who come on board will get capacity at the same price as existing operators," said Sihra. "We have had some pressure from NEPAD (the New Partnership for African Development) to make sure the project takes into account the expectation of regional governments, namely that capacity pricing should be competitive and cost based, and that new companies have non-discriminatory access to it. We have addressed these concerns."

But at exactly what price shall EASSy bandwidth come? "We cannot give exact prices now," he said. "There are many competing cables coming up; everyone now wants to build a cable round east Africa's coast. They were sleeping but EASSy woke them up," he added, suggesting that revealing at what price EASSy would lease out its bandwidth could play into the hands of competitors.

With EASSy expected to be ready for commercial operations in the fourth quarter of 2008, signatories to the MoU said they were certain to be the first cable on the eastern coast of Africa. They promised competitive prices and high quality services, which they believed would make EASSy the most viable marine cable in the region. The actual laying of cables, which will be done by Alcatel Lucent Submarine Networks of France with whom a contract was signed on March 9 2007, will take 6-7 months.

A detailed feasibility study was concluded, so has an environment impact assessment which the operators said found the cable would not negatively impact on the marine ecosystem. A marine survey is due to start, to map the cable route, and ascertain whether the findings of earlier studies are accurate regarding best route and length of the fibre system.

Under the new arrangement there will be landing points at Grand Comoro and at Mayotte, and these will be funded by the Comoros government. Their inclusion will bring to 10 the number of EASSy landing points - the others being at Mtunzini in South Africa, Maputo (Mozambique), Toliary (Madagascar), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Mombasa (Kenya), Mogadishu (Somalia), Djibouti (Republic of Djibouti) and Port Sudan (Sudan).

The operators said because EASSy is regional in nature with shareholders from 17 countries, and because these shareholders are not in EASSy to make money from bandwidth sales but to use the cable to improve their services, EASSy bandwidth would be competitively priced and the cable would be especially viable. "We shall be the first cable to go into water, and for that we shall have an advantage," said Sihra, adding that operators who will lease from third parties who will be in the business of selling bandwidth will end up with high costs and low capacity.

The operators said the interconnection agreements they had concluded with other cables would enable EASSy to offer the public and other operators services from the point of origin of the call to any part of the world. "International carriers like BT, France Telecom, and Sauditel are part of EASSy and we will have multiple choices for accessing the international system, which will also make us competitive," one official said.

Donald Nyakairu, chairman of the EASSy finance committee, said their funding was all in place, with parties such as MTN and Vodacom having contributed directly, while others would contribute through the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) known as the Western Indian Ocean Cable Company (WIOCC) which MoU partners have set up.

He said the maximum amount of loans EASSy could accept was $170 million but it was likely that borrowed money would not exceed $110 million. The Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) announced early in June that it was ready to commit up to $40 million to EASSy but promoters say they might not need all of DBSA's kitty.

Nyakairu, also chair of the East African Backhaul System (EABS) and corporation secretary of uganda telecom, said by the time EASSy is completed, there will be a fibre system running from Mombasa, through Nairobi, the Uganda-Kenya border town of Malaba and all the way to the Uganda's capital Kampala. The network will also have extended from Kampala through the Uganda-Rwanda border town of Kabale, to Kigali (Rwanda), through to Bujumbura, to the Tanzanian border and mainland, and onto the landing point at the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam.

"From the Uganda-Rwanda perspective, we see no problem of hooking up from Mombasa all the way to Rwanda," said Noel Meier, chief executive of MTN Uganda. Telkom Kenya is this year extending the fibre to Malaba from where Ugandan operators will pick it up. MTN currently has fibre from Kampala to the town of Bugiri not far from Malaba; while uganda telecom leases Uganda Electricity Transmission Company capacity that carries fibre to Tororo town, also near the border.

On the western side, MTN has fibre to the Ugandan town of Mbarara, and uganda telecom is due to build fibre from there to the Rwandan border where it will link to the fibre that MTN Rwandatel is erecting to that point.

Within Uganda, the EABS is expected to be hooked to a national fibre backbone which government is building with Chinese funding of up to $110 m. A backhaul system similar to EABS will be developed by operators in southern Africa.

Parties to the EASSy MoU comprise of 11 operators who are 100% government owned and 18 who are either partially government owned or fully private sector-owned. They are Botswana Telecom, Onatel (Burundi), Telecel (Burundi), Comoro Telecoms, Djibouti Telecoms, Ethiopia Telecoms Corporation, Kenya Telkom, Kenya Data Networks, Lesotho Telecom Authority, Telcom Malagasy, (Madagascar), France Telecom (Mayotte), Mauritius Telecom, Telecom de Mozambique, Vodacom (Mozambique), MTN Rwanda, Dalkon (Somalia), MTN South Africa, Telkom South Africa, Vodacom (South Africa), Neotel (South Africa), Canartel (Sudan), Sudatel (Sudan), Satcom Tanzania, Vodacom Tanzania, ZANTEL (Tanzania), Tanzania Telecoms Company (TTCL), MTN Uganda, ZAMTEL (Zambia) and Tel.One (Zimbabwe).

The non-African members are: BT (UK), Saudi Telecom, VSNL/Teleglobe (India), AT&T (USA), Verizon/ ex MCI (USA), France Telecom, and Etisalat (United Arab Emirates).

CIPESA/ Fibre for Africa