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At a recent e-Africa conference in Dakar recently, it emerged that a new fibre cable to line the West African coast is being planned, which will increase competition in the region by rivalling the infamous SAT-3 cable, currently the only fibre cable that services sub-Saharan Africa. The purpose of the recent conference, hosted by the NEPAD's e-Africa Commission, was to create an integrated regional system by looking at the different proposed fibre projects for West and Central Africa and rationalise overlaps. Amongst the projects discussed were terrestrial cables proposed by Sonatel and French company Marais, but it was the proposed West African sub-sea cable that generated the most interest, writes Mapara Syed.

Project West Africa has been designed to bring high-speed connectivity to West Africa through the construction of a West African fibre cable with onward connection on to Europe, Asia and the US. The initial phase of the project is a state-of-the-art fibre optic sub-sea system running along the coast of West Africa from Portugal down to Cameroon with additional links to Senegal, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria. This route duplicates that of SAT-3, which connects all of theses countries, with the exception of Liberia.

However, unlike SAT-3’s point-to-point system, what has been proposed by the project’s designers, Infinity Worldwide Telecommunications Group of Companies (IWTGC), is a regional system that will interconnect all of the West African countries. "Not only will this system provide direct capacity to the rest of the world but regional capacity that will include all the West African countries," explained Robert Woog, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer at IWTGC. "We have a different design to SAT-3 in that we will be bringing cables into each country directly. We have what we call Branching Units, which allow us to bring each country in individually."

IWTGC is an American company founded by Africans and African-Americans and was incorporated in 2003. "Our vision is to bring the finest telecommunications to Africa comparable to the US and Asia," said Woog. The company’s staff have in-depth knowledge of sub-sea technology as well as service provision and much of the management team have thirty to forty years telecommunications experience. "With regards to Project West Africa, we want to bring the latest technology and services to West Africans so they can compete economically with the rest of the world. We want to secure the best connectivity in the region to enable the provision of the best services," said Woog. "The physical cable is the predominant aspect of this project but we also intend to interconnect into other systems to extend connectivity and footprint. We want to serve ISPs, carriers and other service providers directly. Therefore, we are more than just a cable provider," he added.

Woog went on to say exactly how his company were intending to break the mould in terms of cable provision, and capacity provision, in the region. "We will be bringing huge amounts of bandwidth to this region through our terrabit design system, which is similar to brand new systems across the Atlantic. The Equip system will ensure at least 10 gigabits of capacity in each country through a Wave-based approach," he described.

How this capacity will be distributed is also a fundamental aspect of the project. IWTGC are currently in the process of applying for licenses in each country, which will enable them to sell the capacity directly themselves. "We are in discussions with each of the regulatory bodies in every country but the applications have yet to be formalised," said Woog. "You have to understand that in much of these countries there isn’t such a process for something of this nature so we are very much working in cooperation with the different regulatory bodies to help provide information."

If IWTGC is granted the right to sell capacity after the cable is constructed, it will ensure equal access to all according to Woog. "We will be setting up subsidiaries in each country so we will have our own operations from where we can sell bandwidth to all providers." This is in contrast to SAT-3, which is sold as a monopoly by incumbent operators, thus resulting in high costs for bandwidth. For West Africans, cost is an important factor that needs to be considered.

Currently, existing facilities are costly so it is difficult to develop communications in the region and hence modernise. "We are an open system; that is one of our main objectives. As the cable we are looking to build is not a monopoly or consortium cable, it will bring costs down. In addition, as a result of our system’s openness, we will have a much larger customer base, which will also drive cost down," added Woog. "However, quality will not be compromised as a result and we plan to use the most advanced technology to bring bandwidth to this region."

This sub-sea system will be completely funded by private investors, primarily from within and those that are familiar with the region and are focused on improving connectivity there. It is in its final planning stages, which are due to go on for a further six months and thereafter construction of the undersea cable will begin. "Construction will take around eighteen months so we are looking to be operational in two years from now," said Woog.

Another proposal that IWTGC discussed at the e-Africa conference was for a terrestrial cable from Algeria to Nigeria. "Discussions on a land cable are still in their preliminary stages," said Woog. "We are in serious discussions with a number of other systems as we want to link to other cables and connect with other systems, not just to increase connectivity, but to increase resiliency." In terms of when this land cable can be expected Woog said that it was too early to say but that the timing of other systems is consistent with IWTGC’s timing.