When you visit an international website or send an email to a friend overseas, the Internet traffic is carried by submarine cable systems which connect South Africa to Europe and the United States.
There are currently several submarine cable systems which serve South Africa’s telecommunications needs – SAT-3/WACS, Seacom, WACS, and EASSy. All of these systems became operational over the last 15 years.
However, there were submarine cables long before the Internet was invented. The first submarine cable system which connected South Africa to Europe was launched in 1879.
The photos below, for example, show how a telephony undersea cable was laid in the 1940s in Cape Town.
A hat tip to Telkom’s library services for providing the photos.
Main undersea cable systems in South Africa
Here is a summary of some of the submarine cable system which served South Africa’s telecommunications needs since the first telephone service was launched in the country.
1879 – First submarine cable between Europe and Durban
On 27 December 1879, South Africa was directly connected with Europe via Durban and Zanzibar to Aden by means of the East Coast cable of the South African Telegraph Company. This was a single-channel cable.
1889 – First West Coast submarine cable from Cape Town to Europe
In 1889 the first West Coast submarine cable from Cape Town to Europe was established. The cable went via St Helena and the Ascension Islands.
1968 – SAT-1
The SAT-1 cable was laid in 1968, and stretched from Melkbosstrand in South Africa to Sesimbra in Portugal. The submarine cable was a co-axial telephone cable manufactured by Standard Telephone and Cables Ltd. The cable carried 360 telephone circuits, opened for traffic in February 1969, and was taken out of service in June 1993.
1993 – SAT-2
Construction on the SAT-2 cable started in May 1992, and ran from Funchal, Madeira to Melkbosstrand in South Africa. SAT-2 was a fibre optic cable, and was the first submarine cable constructed to enable commercial and private use of the Internet. The SAT-2 cable opened for service in March 1993, and replaced the SAT-1 cable.
2001 – SAT-3/SAFE
SAT-3 is a fibre submarine cable linking Portugal and Spain to South Africa, while SAFE connects South Africa to Asia. SAT-3 had an initial design capacity of 340Gbps, while SAFE had a design capacity of 440Gbps. The system’s capacity has been upgraded since launch. The SAT-3/SAFE system was built by a consortium of operators, which included Telkom.
2009 – Seacom
Seacom is the first submarine cable system to connect South Africa to Europe via the East Coast of Africa. The 17,000km submarine fibre-optic cable system was launched in July 2009, and at launch had a design capacity of 1.28Tbps.
2010 – EASSy
In July 2010 the 10,500km Eastern African Submarine Cable System – better known as EASSy – was launched. EASSy has a 2 fibre-pair configuration, and links South Africa with Sudan via landing points in Mozambique, Madagascar, the Comoros, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti. In 2011 the design capacity of EASSy was increased to 4.72Tbps.
2012 – WACS
The West Africa Cable System (WACS) was launched in May 2012 with a design capacity of 5.12Tbps. The 17,200km WACS fibre optic submarine cable system spans the west coast of Africa, starting at Yzerfontein near Cape Town and terminating in the United Kingdom. WACS is the first submarine cable system to make use of Generalized Multi-Protocol Label Switching to provide advanced in-system restoration of wavelengths – increasing network resilience.