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Land and sea: the role of terrestrial in subsea networks

Subsea subsea terrestrial panel Europe 16.9.jpg

Capacity Europe panellists discuss the role of terrestrial fibre networks in subsea cable networks across the African continent.

During the virtual session entitled, Bridging the gap: How Africa's terrestrial networks can complement continent's subsea activity, Dobek Pater, telecoms analyst at Africa Analysis and his panel of experts including David Eurin, group chief strategy officer & CEO of Liquid Sea; Amine Kandil, CEO & founder of N+ONE Datacenters; Haitham Zahran, VP - EMEA Subsea Cable Systems at PCCW Global; Nina Triantis, managing director of Standard Bank; Jan Hnizdo, CEO of Teraco, set the scene of a Africa at various points in its fibre network journey.

"I think it's fair to say that the state of development varies significantly according to Geography," said Triantis. "It only been more recently that we've seen more investment cross border, Liquid has done a lot of that and increasingly more players are crossing borders with fibre infrastructure."

It is in some countries however that Triantis says in taking fibre closer to the curb, to the business and to the home is still in "nascent stages".

Countries like South Africa is further ahead, alongside places like Kenya but when you look at somewhere like Nigeria "where there is tremendous opportunity", she says "there's been hardly any development in taking fibre to the curb, there's more fibre to the business but really very little fibre to the home."

Echoing these sentiments, Liquid's Eurin said "It's fair to say that the backbone deployment across the continent has made a huge amount of progress but there is still a lot of work to be done.

While recognising that "most of the data centres are interconnected" therefore enabling to move to move content from country to country, continent to continent, he explains that  many of the secondary countries (in terms of GDP) will miss a lot of the capacity that is going to be created by landing new submarine cables such as 2Africa and Equiano, without the proper build out of these network backbones,

"We're going need to continue to keep building backbones and connecting countries together to bring the capacity that lands in one place to another. Liquid's model is to partner with companies that have already built fibre across Africa."

It is the scale of the continent that makes Africa such an appealing location for investors and developers alike. Zahran reminds that that with a population of roughly 1.34 billion due to increase to 2.5 billion by 2050, is no surprise why so much is happening there.

"The traffic is doubling every 18 months in Africa, and as far as the mobile broadband, it's moving at pace from the 3G to 4G. Additionally, 41%, the population is less than 15-year-old, so you can imagine how such a population will effect data usage in the near future. That's why most of the, hyperscalers and the big operators are approaching Africa and trying to do business there."

Unsurpringly, Zahran said that the reason why places like Kenya, South Africa and Egypt are considered hubs is because they have a good backbones.

"That's why it is easy to approach such countries and they extend the offshore capacity to a data centre or to operators inside the country. If we want to create more hubs we need to build out that terrestrial connectivity," he said.

On the place of data centres in the African ecosystem, Hnizdo said "…they all go hand in hand. As we're seeing the subsea cables develop and terrestrial fibre networks grow, so too are you seeing an interest in data centre."

The real question he says is what type of data centres we are going to see and the answer is directly linked to Power, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa.

"A lot of the countries have got challenged grids, and it's one thing, operating a 1, 2 or 3MW edge facility, where you can run it on different power availability types. But if you're running a large hyperscale facility at 3MW IT loads, it becomes quite challenging to try and run an environment when you don’t have Uptime from the grid".

Part of this conversation is of course renewable energy, which Hnizdo says is of course a good thing but should be viewed realistically against needs.

"Solar and green initiatives are fantastic and absolutely make sense, but it needs to be balanced against you know the needs of a population, bringing digital infrastructure and connectivity to that population, and typically Solar, for example, is a secondary way of powering these facilities."

His overarching message is that power "goes hand in hand with a telecoms infrastructure, without power you're not going to have a growing economy."

As conversation turned to the financing of subsea/terrestrial projects, Eurin took to the opportunity to speak about cross connects, some of which are currently being in monopolistic ways, leading to excessive costs.

"2Africa and Equiano are now are led by OTTs, and those sponsors have been clear and embedded into the terms and conditions the enablement of open access and very low cost connect charges, if any."

"I think that is going to change the face of that bridge, because not going to be in a situation anymore where somebody is extracting rent from people who want to use the Internet, but actually is going to be a much more affordable for people access to those services. Overall, the financing is definitely driven by private hands."

Zahran agreed saying, "No one will invest in a system that will terminate in a closed data centre, where there is a type of monopoly inside the data centre and where someone else controls the cross connection and the backhaul access."

On the topic of regulation Hnizdo is an advocate of a free market, explaining "It is about deregulating and liberalising the telco sector in its in its entirety. Letting the free market prevail would be my suggestion."

Triantis added that in the case of South Africa which has hundreds of ISPs and various other players, "I think the regulator needs to allow consolidation because not everybody is going to be able to access funding."

Kandil agreed that regulation is a big obstacle saying, "I wish I had what Jan has which is 250 ISPs and being able to drop dark fibre at will. Free markets drive opportunity and drive business."

Unsurprisingly data centres were what she described as the "hottest sector" but added that opportunities are not there and "just investing in Greenfield and growing from just Greenfield is not always easy".

Kandil disagreed saying that he's witnessing the opposite across his markets.

"Not all money is the same. I think you want the right type of money in flowing into this specific sector. I don't see any shortage of funding, but we need clients, we need more deregulation in order to have a more dynamic environment. So, it's not so much about getting the infrastructure investors to do more but create more viable opportunities for them to invest."

Bridging the gap: How Africa's terrestrial networks can complement continent's subsea activity, will be available to watch online from 21 October, 08:15, BST. 

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