Africa is often referred to as the "dark continent," with internet and telephony penetration rates some of the lowest in the world. That, however, is changing rapidly, with projects like the West African Cable System (WACS) and the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS) being planned and deployed to deliver much-needed connectivity to the continent. Infrastructure these days is not all about roads and bridges and railways. The human race will never be able to do without long distance transportation but it can become less dependent on projects of this sort as it develops better voice and data networks. One of the most exciting telecoms infrastructure currently in the pipeline is the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS), also known as the Angola-Brazil Cable, is a planned submarine communications cable in the South Atlantic Ocean linking Luanda, the capital of Angola with Fortaleza in northern Brazil with a leg connecting to the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha.
The driving force behind the cable is Angola Cables, which was formed in 2009 by the five biggest telecoms operators in Angola. namely Angola Telecom which holds 51 percent of the capital, Unitel with 31, MSTelcom with nine Movicel with six, and Startel with a three percent holding. Its director is António Nunes, who explains the company’s mission in the simplest of terms: “We want Angola to become one of the main telecoms hubs in Africa.”
Angola Cables addresses the "wholesale, or bulk selling market: “Our core business is the commercialisation of capacity in international voice and data circuits over fibre submarine cables.” It is responsible for the management and development in Angola of WACS, the West African Cable System, which has a landing point at Sangano near the capital Luanda (and incidentally was originally planned to cross the Atlantic to Brazil). It also provides international telecommunications transmission to all operators in order to increase the interconnection between Angola and the world.
WACS connects South Africa with London, and has fourteen landing points along the way, so it is an important link to Europe for the West African coastal states, however the decision not to link it to the Americas left a gap. As Eric Handa, co-founder of APTelecoms says, many of the markets outside of the US and Europe are becoming very saturated, and even some of the markets in Asia, particularly India and China are starting to become saturated – and as a fluent mandarin speaker who has worked for both Tata Communications and Bharti Airtel, he should know. “I think if you look at a lot of the markets, the growth rate is slowing down. But Africa has tremendous opportunities, and the growth rate has nowhere to go but up! The location of Angola geographically and geopolitically means it is in a situation where it can really capitalise on some of the submarine cable connectivity that is happening throughout the Middle East.”
What he means is that many of the international telecoms operators are looking for an alternative route, and Angola is that route. The 3,800 mile SACS cable will be the first transatlantic submarine cable in the southern hemisphere, and will allow a direct link between Africa and the South American continent. Additionally it will have onward connectivity to the USA via Miami and that is of tremendous advantage to a lot of the international operators, opening a new lane of passage for commerce and telecoms. From its strategic position half way up the west coast, Angola is ideally placed to drive that.
Angola is already a strategic point in its development as a technology hub within the African continent, something it needs to develop if it is to establish itself as the natural route to the American markets for its neighbours. “SACS represents a completely new path between West Africa and South America,” António Nunes asserts. “We also want to develop a network in Africa, because today all the interconnectivity between African operators has been done through Europe. Our concept is to promote a truly African network and facilitate a point of interconnectivity between African operators.”
Already a number of American and Chinese companies are being attracted to Angola because of its minerals, oil and natural resources. The fact that Angola is becoming more of a technology hub in the region can only help that. “Africa will have the same number of internet users as the US by 2015 and demand, while less at first, will be enormous as Africans, the world’s youngest population, are raised on technology,” says Nunes.
The SACS cable is an essential part of the new infrastructure. As Handa graphically expressed it: “Once the highway is built you can drive the cars along it! In this case the cars are the applications carrying programmes like Skype and layer 3 services (the network layer of the OSI model). So it is a really exciting time and I think Angola Cables has a great opportunity to benefit nationally, and be the driver for ICT growth in Africa.”
It is expected that the SACS will cut data traffic costs between South America, Africa and onwards to Asia by 80 percent, another massive draw for the operators. Ideally the cable would have been completed in time for the World Cup, a goal the Brazilian operator Telebras was keen to achieve. However there had been some question marks over whether Telebras would be helping to fund the construction of the project, and in February this year it confirmed that its involvement would be limited to providing the landing point at Fortaleza. Angola Cables had considered partnering with Telebras, though according to Nunes "negotiations cooled because the Brazilian company was focused only on the World Cup, but it is clear that the doors are still open for the resumption of dialogue," It is now expected that the system will open for business early in 2016.
The rest of Africa will be looking very closely at what is happening in Angola today, Nunes believes. Angola is looking for connectivity with its surrounding neighbours to the south, north and east. It is building inland as well. In addition to the submarine cable they are also providing connectivity to locations like Sangano where the WACS and SACS will meet, and also new locations like its Angonap hub in Luanda, which contains the equipment for optical signal regeneration and terminal demultiplexing of the signals for distribution to end users. From Angonap it reaches out to the rest of Africa enabling ‘meshed networks’ so if one path is broken or goes down there is resilience in the system that creates sound infrastructure, a ‘flawless network’ which never goes down.
Meanwhile Angola Cables has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the leading German internet exchange operator DE-CIX that establishes a long-term collaboration and creates the foundations of a new neutral interconnection environment in Angola and in the southern African Region. “Major global and local players increasingly face the challenge of promoting innovative internet services while continuing to ensure safe and effective online usage. DE-CIX has experience in developing strong internet ecosystems around the world, and we look forward to working with them,” says Nunes.