21 September 2018

Africa's First Major Terrestrial Cable Takes Ten Years to Complete and Connects 660+ Cities and Towns - Liquid Telecom's Next Pan Continental Route May Be East-West

London — The completion of Liquid Telecom's One Africa network from the Cape to Cairo is a considerable achievement by any measure. In a continent that does not make it easy to build out terrestrial fibre this is probably the largest project completed to date. Russell Southwood spoke to Reshaad Shah, CEO, Liquid Telecom South Africa about how it will be used.

The part of Liquid Telecom's One Africa Network that goes from Cape Town to Cairo is over 10,000+ kms. It connects over 660 cities and towns and required more than forty national and regional licences.

Before the Seacom and EASSy undersea cables were built, there was a terrestrial cross-border fibre project being promoted that would have taken many parts of the same route as this part of the One Africa network.

The Cape to Cairo route started with its first border crossing in 2009, making its construction an almost decade long process. The sheer time required gives some idea why that earlier project did not succeed.

Shah says that the challenges encountered during this decade fell into two "distinct buckets:"There were regulatory hurdles from licensing (operations) and local town type regulatory hurdles. There were extensive Rights of Way negotiations." Some countries has "a more mature regulatory environment", whereas others were a great deal less favorable:"Some places had never had any fibre networks except those of the incumbent operators."

The second lot of challenges were terrain-related. The fibre crosses several rivers, most notably the Zambezi. The route chosen was not simply the shortest route from one end to the other but had to ensure that the maximum number of towns and cities were connected. But the route was not conceived by itself but fits into a much wider pattern of rings within most of the counties it goes through.

So what's the business case for this kind of terrestrial, cross-border fibre? Intra-African trade remains low and is estimated to be only 18%, compared to intra-European and Intra-North American trade which stood at 69% and 50% respectively. Inter-African data traffic is almost certainly below 10-15% of total traffic: regional caching by people like Google has created some growth.

Liquid Telecom sees the route as a longer-term bet against the development of a much larger digital economy on the continent, describing its network as the "new trading routes of Africa's Knowledge Economy." Africa will be able to exchange both digital content and services without it needing to be routed via London, Paris or New York. In the short term, the network can also function either as a national or regional network.

The map of Liquid Telecom's fibre networks is much denser in East and Southern Africa so are there plans to build up the Western seaboard of Africa?:"We're a WACS consortium member so we're using undersea cable on that side of the continent. Also there are less cities and towns between the South African border and Douala in Cameroon".

"We may look at the same model to go from Djibouti to Cote d'Ivoire to pick up traffic from some of the landlocked countries. We also have some connectivity going through DRC to Congo-Brazzaville and are planning to have a presence in West Africa."

The geographically easiest route would be from Djibouti though Sudan and Chad to Cameroon. Angola Cables' international fibre route SACS to Latin America opened this week and Camtel's SAIL cable will also open shortly. A cross-continental route from Cameroon to Djibouti would allow traffic to flow globally without it needing to go to Europe.

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