[By Duncan McLeod]
SA and Africa have never had it so good. Almost every month brings news of some or other big broadband project. The latest, a plan to build a high-capacity cable between Brazil, SA and Angola, will bring terabits of new bandwidth to our shores.
Since Seacom went live on Africa’s east coast in mid-2009, wholesale and retail bandwidth prices have plummeted. In Kenya, they have precipitated a price war and a mad rush to invest in terrestrial networks — both in backhaul, between and in cities, and in access, providing wireless and wireline broadband services directly to consumers.
In SA, fixed-line broadband prices especially have fallen off a cliff. And, thanks to Internet service providers like MWeb taking advantage of Seacom’s cheaper bandwidth, consumers have had their first taste of affordable uncapped Internet access (well, affordable in comparison with what went before).
Since Seacom, there has been a flood of investment in undersea cables. The East Africa Submarine System has gone live, also on Africa’s east coast. And this week, the West African Cable System (Wacs) landed just north of Cape Town, promising a flood of capacity on the western route to Europe.
New cable systems are on the way. The France Telecom-backed Africa Coast to Europe cable, following a similar route to Wacs, should arrive on our shores next year.
Now, yet another new cable system is planned. This one, the South Atlantic Express (SAex), will follow an altogether different route. Backed by SA’s eFive Telecoms, with planned investments from the Bank of China and the Industrial Development Corp, SAex will be the first cable to traverse the southern Atlantic Ocean.
The cable, which should go live in June 2013, will connect Southern Africa and Brazil. What’s exciting about SAex is it will provide onward connectivity to the US, where many of the world’s Internet servers are located, via the 22 000 km GlobeNet system.
This is important for reducing latency — response times from Internet servers. Until now, most SA Internet traffic has been routed via Europe, and then across the north Atlantic.
Of course, this flood of submarine capacity means nothing if it’s not accompanied by big investments in terrestrial networks. Thankfully, there are plenty of projects under way to bring the capacity from the landing stations into towns and cities across Southern Africa.
In SA, a range of companies and consortia are building fibre networks. There’s FibreCo, a joint venture between Cell C, Convergence Partners and Dimension Data’s Internet Solutions; there’s a consortium of Vodacom, MTN and Neotel building networks between the cities; Telkom is constantly investing in new fibre; Dark Fibre Africa continues to build metro and national networks; and Broadband Infraco, the state-owned telecom company, is also investing.
Naturally, all this investment doesn’t make sense if operators can’t bring the bandwidth to end users. And here, too, there is big spending going on. Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom are pouring billions of rand into the latest-generation mobile broadband networks.
Competition between the mobile networks is hotting up fast, as seen in the recent public sniping between Vodacom and Cell C. And in fixed lines, where investment is sorely lagging, there may soon be competition, too, with a new company, i3 Africa, talking up a plan to build fibre (rather than expensive and slow copper) into as many as 2,5m SA homes in the next four or five years.
The most frustrating aspect of all of this investment for consumers is how long it takes to build these networks. In the medium to long term, though, it’s all going to translate into a broadband bonanza.