Subsea Special: Interview with Chris Wood, WIOCC

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.


Courtesy: HSMimages

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 fibre.

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 down.

"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 is realised."

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 out.

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 market.

"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 Wood.

"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.

Topics: WIOCC, Chris Wood, subsea, Africa