Enough bandwidth for 2010?

The South African minister of communications, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, recently announced that all cables landing in South Africa will have to be majority-owned by South African companies.

According to ITWeb, Matsepe-Casaburri was adamant that ‘SEACOM's alliance with Neotel – which means Neotel would own the cable in the territorial waters – was not enough to satisfy the ownership criteria.’

This effectively also blocks EASSy from landing in South Africa as their local ownership in the cable – through MTN, Telkom and Neotel – is only 27%.

These two cable systems are both expected to be operational in the first half of 2009, given that there are no unforeseen problems.

In the event of these two cables being blocked from landing in South Africa, it leaves the country with two other systems which will have to supplement SAT3/SAFE for the 2010 Soccer World Cup’s international bandwidth needs.

Both cables have government involvement with the first proposed project, InfraCo, coming from the Department of Public Enterprises. This fiber submarine cable will initially connect South Africa to Brazil, and later Europe. The second is the Nepad ICT Broadband Infrastructure Network, a project linked to the Department of Communications, which is planning a cable on the East coast of Africa – similar to EASSy.

Time a problem

According to Department of Public Enterprises director-general Portia Molefe, the first leg of the Infraco cable will be up and running by 2009. No clear time frames for the Nepad ICT Broadband Infrastructure Network have been provided yet.

But with the deadlines for the 2010 World Cup looming, time may be running out for these two government cable projects.

Planning an international fiber cable project is a time consuming exercise, and the associated negotiations related to interconnection agreements and funding can be just as time intensive.

InfraCo has hit a bit of a speed wobble due to regulatory issues and political wrangling and the Nepad ICT Broadband Infrastructure Network – which involves 23 nations – is unlikely to be able to quickly push policies through. The result is that these projects are no where close to ready to start building their cables.

But even if the planning and funding is wrapped up in the next few months, the practicalities involved in laying down fibre optic cables, like surveying the seabed and booking a vessel, may mean that 2010 is not a feasible operational date.

Surveying the seabed and installing the cables can take anything from 18 months onwards, if a vessel is booked in time. Three vendors, namely Alcatel-Lucent, Tyco International and NEC, dominate the undersea cable market.

According to industry sources, the vessels from these players are booked out well in advance, and if InfraCo or Nepad would like to put a new cable down they have to join the back of the queue. It can take months, or even years, after an official contractor license has been signed before they can begin laying down cables.

In time for 2010?

2010 is less than 28 months away and it appears unlikely that either InfraCo or Nepad will be operational in 2009.

The local 2010 Soccer World Cup Organizing Committee recently said that they will only have details about the international bandwidth needs for the event towards the end of 2008. This means that SAT3/SAFE may not be able to meet the event’s demands, in which case South Africa must have access to another cable.

The logical solution is to support SEACOM, especially since a landing agreement has already been signed between Neotel and SEACOM. This system promises an initial bandwidth capacity of 1.3 Tbps, enough to ensure that there will not be a bandwidth shortfall in 2010.

This will however require Matsepe-Casaburri to make a u-turn on her recent landing rights announcement, something that most industry experts agree is needed to ensure competition in the international bandwidth market.

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Enough bandwidth for 2010?