ANALYSIS: The world’s first south Atlantic route

ANALYSIS: The world’s first south Atlantic route

Given the wealth of connectivity between North America and Europe, it is perhaps an oddity that no cable yet spans the south Atlantic. Any traffic between Latin America and Africa must travel indirectly via North America and Europe, or use satellite.

A remedy for this gap looks to be in the works. Network operator Angola Cables is planning the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS) which, if launched as hoped in 2016, will run from near the Angolan capital of Luanda to a new data centre being specially constructed 6,000km away at Fortaleza in Brazil.

SACS – which is costing $160 million and will feature four fibre pairs of 100G each – is not intended as a simple point-to-point, stand-alone affair. It is envisioned by Angola Cables as part of a bold plan to route traffic between multiple end points, spread over numerous continents. At the Fortaleza data centre, SACS will connect to the Cable of the Americas (COTA), a project currently under construction which will take traffic to Miami in the US, in which Angola Cables has a stake. 

By connecting to the already lit West Africa Cable System (WACS) in Angola, SACS will also provide an alternative route for Latin American traffic heading to Europe. WACS – which incidentally was itself once intended to extend to Brazil – also offers onward connections to the Middle East and Asia. 

This will slash latency between stock markets in São Paulo and the Far East, and the cost of wholesale connectivity between Africa and South America will also be hugely reduced.

António Nunes, CEO of Angola Cables, says that SACS is a key building block in a plan to transform Angola into a communications hub serving all of Africa: “For this to happen, it is necessary to create the right infrastructure to support it,” he explained. 

“The connection to multiple points is mandatory for this plan. With this cable and the connection to North America, Angola Cables will be able to send African traffic to the centre of the world’s main international traffic points.” 

He says that economic growth in both Brazil and Angola further adds to the rightness of the timing: “Economic exchanges between African countries and Brazil has been growing significantly, and Brazil is also showing increased interest in exportation to Africa.”

Angola Cables, said Nunes, will be the first operator to offer the possibility of a complete transmission ring in the Atlantic: “We will become a strategic base in the African Continent, not just for African enterprises but also for those international providers that are looking at the African market,” he added.

Shota Masuda, senior manager, submarine network division with NEC Corporation, the vendor chosen by Angola Cables as construction partner, believes the rationale for a south Atlantic cable has not been right until now.

“A cable on this route had to wait for the advent of a mega-capacity cable linking Africa’s west-coast nations with Europe, and another mega-capacity cable linking Brazil and the US,” he pointed out. 

“WACS came into operation in mid-2012, just a few months before the launch of the SACS RFP. Work on COTA started last month. In the absence of those, SACS would have been just a cable linking Angola and Brazil, which was not thought to be value enough by itself.”

Alan Mauldin, research director with independent market analysis firm TeleGeography, agreed that there has been little justification to date for an Africa-to-Latin America link. 

“I think that for most people, this cable will be one piece in a bigger puzzle – part of a wider capacity solution,” he said. “It’s a cable that will be used for all sorts of traffic, not just starting in Angola or terminating in Brazil.” 

But if SACS is to be the first of its kind, then it may need to stick to its schedule or risk being runner-up to the South Atlantic Express (SAex). First announced back in 2011 by eFive Telecoms, the SAex project has been through various iterations, ownerships and difficult funding rounds. Planned to connect South Africa and Namibia to Brazil, it has the aim – if it ever goes live – of shaving latency off the route between two of the BRICS economies. It is not scheduled to be operational until 2017, however. 

Meanwhile, a longstanding plan for all five BRICS economies to collaborate on a project that would link them via a huge 34,000km submarine system remains, despite much talk, a tantalising possibility rather than an imminent reality. SACS therefore has the chance to cross the winning line first.

“We believe that the SACS system will be ready and operational by the end of 2016,” said Nunes. “We are really confident that we will be the first to cross the south Atlantic.”

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