Don't have a login yet?
Sign up now
10 January 2013
| Guy Matthews
Can terrestrial developments in Africa start to match its abundance of subsea capacity? Chris Wood, CEO of WIOCC, is hopeful.
The WIOCC consortium is best known
around the world as the builder of the EASSy submarine cable,
in capacity terms the largest system serving
Africa’s east coast.
Under the leadership of CEO Chris Wood, WIOCC has been quietly
chalking up new landmarks, further transforming the
continent’s connectivity. The
consortium’s network footprint includes 40,000km
of submarine fibre-optic cable, and its shareholders between
them also now operate more than 50,000km of terrestrial
WIOCC’s reach now extends into many landlocked
African economies, including Burundi, Lesotho, Malawi, Rwanda,
Uganda and Zimbabwe, cementing its claim to be
Africa’s foremost purveyor of affordable,
high-speed wholesale connectivity, both within the continent
and looking well beyond. There is however plenty more work to
be done, believes Wood.
"Three or four years ago there was practically no connectivity
along Africa’s east coast, but that all changed in
2009 and 2010 with the advent of several cables, including
EASSy," he says.
"Now you have systems like WACS on the west too, and suddenly
there are multiple cables, between them offering greatly
enhanced diversity." Wood claims this added capacity is
starting to stimulate the emergence of online businesses across
Africa, and forcing pricing of all sorts of services to come
"There’s a lag in many cases, with terrestrial
developments not keeping pace," he fears. "We’re
seeing lots of backhaul fibre being put in, with our
shareholders alone being responsible for 50,000km of fibre
between them in southern and east Africa over the past two or
three years. What we need more of now is fibre running into
homes and businesses. It’s this last mile we need
to see sorted out before full value from submarine investments
He rejects the idea that this is a uniquely African challenge:
"You could compare the situation to the UK, where London has a
lot of rich connectivity, but in some parts of Cornwall you
can’t even get a dial-up connection," he points
The difference with Africa is the sheer cost and difficulty of
squaring this last mile circle: "It is starting to happen, with
several companies building fibre into housing estates in
Nairobi, for example," says Wood. "We’re seeing
high-speed wireless connectivity too in many places, but this
is a process that’s going to take years not
months. No single company can do it on their own, and in many
cases we are seeing companies sharing ducts and even fibre,
which is encouraging."
Conspicuous islands of true progress are emerging. Wood cites
the example of tiny, landlocked Lesotho, which has enjoyed a
reduction of up to 67% in the pricing of internet services
since WIOCC’s entry into its wholesale
"What we’ve done in Lesotho is to create
competition by developing our own fibre solution," he says.
"Any kind of competition is going to bring down pricing. But of
course if you are not careful you can end up with too much
competition. If nobody is making enough profit,
there’s no money to be invested in developing
networks. We’re seeing this with mobile networks
in many parts of Africa."
Back in the world of subsea infrastructure, Wood is
particularly pleased with the way technology advances have been
incorporated into EASSy since its launch: "EASSy’s
design capacity was recently increased again following
confirmation that the system can deploy 100Gbps wavelengths,
giving it a capacity of 11.8Tbps," he enthuses.
"That’s an enormous increase in four years. It
makes the system very future proof, and able to handle all the
growth in bandwidth once people start streaming 3D TV and using
other demanding applications, which will happen."
Wood believes that this sort of upgrade potential makes it
unlikely that Africa will need new cables down either of its
coasts in the near future, but he anticipates that there will
be further construction in the direction of India and Europe,
perhaps even to the US, and welcomes such moves for the sake of
the added diversity they would bring.
"There are several plans on the table, and I suspect that once
one gets built the others may disappear," he believes.
"What’s needed in particular is a cable route to
Europe that avoids Egypt."
WIOCC, meanwhile, will spend the next year or two focussing on
further integrating its shareholders’ various
networks, bringing about additional improvements in end-to-end
connectivity: "We want to offer people a connection through to
London on a single network from more African locations," says
"Customers don’t want to piece this together from
12 or more different carriers any more." In general, he
believes African telecoms is developing encouragingly and
interestingly, and that there is much hope for its next phase:
"There are huge opportunities for Africa to continue to
interconnect, and for the continent to carry on taking its
place commercially on the world stage," he concludes.