Africa is set to join the world’s information superhighway with a bang!

| 14 June 2012

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“With the development of the Internet, we are in the middle of the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire. I used to think that it was just the biggest thing since Gutenberg, but now I think you have to go back farther.” – John Perry Barlow

John Barlow who is an American poet, essayist, political activist and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society puts it succinctly when he describes the Internet and the impact that it will, and is having on the world that we live in today.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Internet has been largely responsible in breaking down huge boundaries in businesses, economies and governments.

Just look at what has happened in the last year around the world…the Arab Spring saw governments come tumbling down and the guys that started Facebook made billions when they listed. It has been a crazy year in many regards.

This mass connectivity has resulted in new entrepreneurs being born; the ability to communicate electronically across vast spaces has resulted in boundaries crashing down around the world that we never thought possible.

Out of the 7 billion people living on our planet just over one third have access to the Internet. In the last decade the internet has grown dramatically, today more than 2.2 billion people have access to the internet according to North America has an Internet penetration of over a 78%, Europe is sitting at around 62%, Oceania/Australia 67%, South America at 40%, the Middle East at 37% and Asia has a 26% internet penetration. Africa lies right at the bottom with just 13.5% having access to the internet and most of these people do so via mobile devices.

It is really sad when you look at that last number and realise how massive the digital divide is on the African continent and how far we are lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to connectivity and access to the World Wide Web.

But things are changing fast, very fast in fact, huge investments are being made on infrastructure and bringing connectivity via undersea cables to the continent in particular to sub Saharan Africa.

It was only three years ago that South Africa relied on just the SAT3 undersea cable to carry most of our connectivity to the outside world. We all remember those days, waiting for the YouTube videos to buffer, and large files taking forever to send via email.

Since then, as illustrated in Steve Song’s African Undersea Cables map, five new submarine cable systems have landed on Sub Saharan African shores.


Seacom, a $600 million investment, went live in July 2009 – linking the east coast of Africa to Europe and Asia. This was followed by the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) which went live in July 2010 along with a few others on the west and east coasts of Africa.

On the 11th of May this year the African continent made a giant leap into the information superhighway when the WACS (West Africa Cable System) went live.

This is a huge step! The latest undersea cable, which runs along the west coast of Africa, is also the highest capacity submarine cable system ever to land in Sub-Saharan Africa. It technically plugs us into the connected planet allowing many countries along the west coast Africa to have for the first time, their very own access to the World Wide Web, unleashing a new wave of high speed broadband connectivity.

WACS has literally doubled our capacity and will add additional redundancy to our current network.

The WACS submarine cable system is 17 200 km long and starts in the United Kingdom connecting to Portugal before making the connection to the African continent.

In total it will link 14 countries which include South Africa, Namibia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, and the Canary Islands.

The $650 million investment is shared by many partner telecommunications companies along the route. In South Africa for example MTN, Telkom, Vodacom, Neotel and the state owned Broadband Infraco are joint partners in this venture.

To put this into perspective, 3 years ago, if we were to use an analogy of a highway carrying cars we had two lanes of traffic. Today we have over 20 lanes of traffic, the bottleneck traffic jams have been cleared and we have alternative highways in case there are traffic jams.

The capacity of the new cable is 500 Gbps and is upgradeable to a maximum capacity of the 5.12 Tbit/s. In simple terms the current speed is capable of downloading 106 DVD’s per second.

What is even more incredible is the size of these undersea submarine cable systems. Just thinking of their capacity, one imagines thick cables lying on the sea bed.  Actually the WACS cable is no thicker than your average garden hosepipe. The heart of the cable, were the optical fibres are located, are thinner than a strand of hair yet they can carry so much traffic at such incredibly high speeds.

This is just a tip of what is set to come; already there are plans for more undersea cables linking Africa to South America and other continents.

Business is set to boom in Africa. Worldwide we have seen the benefits that connectivity brings to nations. The potential future socio-economic impacts will be massive and ultimately connectivity will have a positive impact to people’s lives.

Aside from the business benefits, one just needs to look at the significant impact connectivity will have on e-education and e-health to the continent.

Africa’s internet population and the global growth of internet traffic is set to explode in the next few years. The future of the Internet in Africa is mobile, super-fast and full of video. Is your company ready for the impact?

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