Two new fibre contenders – this time it’s Southern Africa

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One new major fibre project came into the light of day last week and further details emerged about another. The first is an ambitious initiative to create a Southern African fibre network on the back of the South African Power Pool transmission network: for Expressions of Interest for building it see the Jobs and Opportunities column at the bottom of this week’s issue. The second is WAFS, a Telkom South Africa-managed project that seeks to connect South Africa to Nigeria to relieve capacity problems on SAT3. Russell Southwood investigates.

African Dark Fibre Communications Ltd is at an advanced stage of negotiation with the South African Power Pool companies to lay fibre to connect the member countries. In this week’s issue it has issued a request for Expressions of Interest from contractors.

Phase 1 of the project is to complete and interconnect the fibre optic networks of three national electricity utilities with one another as well as to a competitive high-capacity undersea cable or equivalent. Phase 1 of the Project is scheduled for completion before the end of 2008. The three companies that to be linked would be South Africa’s Eskom, Zimbabwe’s ZESA and Zambia’s Zesco. The latter two companies are already selling their domestic fibre capacity. A 2001 World Bank study recommended the VSAT communications system with a long-term plan to go over to fibre.

The South African Power Pool’s network capacity management system between the three countries is currently handled by VSAT. The fibre across the network would replace the existing VSAT system.

Peter Cole, African Dark Fibre Communications said:”Southern Africa is one of the last places on the planet to have access to competitive bandwidth. That’s what we’ll be providing.”

The West African Festoon System (WAFS) is a Telkom South Africa-managed project that has already completed its feasibility phase. The WAFS project aims to connect countries along the western coast of Africa from Nigeria to Namibia. At present, only Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and South Africa have signed up although the project’s promoters want to attract telcos in both Namibia and Nigeria to complete the route. The managing agent for the project is Telkom South Africa which will either connect via Botswana (who may become another consortium member) or Namibia.

The consortium has already conducted a feasibility study and met in February 2007 to finalise the tendering process for the project. It appears that it will have the same governance structure as the SAT3 cable as well as also being managed by the same company Telkom SA. Prices on the cable have not yet been fixed. One of the purposes of building the cable is to ensure that some of the countries along its route have some redundancy capacity if there is a failure on the SAT3 cable and that inter-African traffic can be moved off of SAT3.

Further information was sought from Telkom South Africa but in time-honoured fashion it has not come back to us, not even to say ‘we have nothing to say’. What do those communications people all get paid for?

A report on MyADSL last week quotes Department of Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri from her budget speech last week saying that fair access to international submarine cables was key to driving down international bandwidth rates. This follows President Thabo Mbeki saying that low international calling rates were essential for attracting business to South Africa.

Matsepe-Casaburri said:“It is Government policy that the cost of access to international connectivity is affordable and that all arrangements regarding access or use of international cables and/or facilities do not unfairly exclude others from use of or access to the cables.”

The minister named 1 November 2007 as the date from when the exclusivity provisions contained in the SAT-3 agreement or arrangements entered into shall be declared null and void in South Africa. The minister further said that she directed ICASA to prioritise and urgently prescribe a list of essential facilities, ensuring that the electronic communications facilities connected to the SAT-3 submarine cable can be accessed soon.

Is it going to happen this time or should we advise you to watch the horizon for flying pigs? South African politicians seem to talk a good game when it comes to delivering cheaper international bandwidth but thus far – despite being the people that run the country – have delivered nothing. These same politicians seem able to change the CEO of the company but have been powerless all these years to address an issue they say is so pressing. Is it surprising that countries like Kenya are sceptical when the same South African politicians talk commandingly about open access and cheaper fibre in the context of the EASSy protocol?

There are also a couple of interesting rumours swirling round the edge of fibre developments on the continent…Firstly, fibre prices in Reunion, the French colony in the Indian Ocean will fall to US$620 a meg at the end of this year. How does that compare to what you’re currently paying? Telkom South Africa customers might wish to ask their supplier how their current charges are distance-related? For the purposes of fair comparison, they might also add that Mauritius Telecom is offering capacity at US$3000 per meg and below for volume. Those working on SAT3 inside Telkom know its prices must come down so when is it going to happen?

The second rumour is that Infraco will build a several terabit international fibre in order to address the current pricing deadlock.