SAEx helps Africa to create its own path

28 August 2018 | Natalie Bannerman

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Dr Rosalind Thomas, managing director of SAEx International in Mauritius and also CEO of SAEx SA in South Africa, spoke to Capacity about the significance of this new route, what it will mean for the locations it connects and the progress of construction.

Route diversity is everything. That’s why new cables like the one being built by SAEx International is so important.

In August 2018 alone a total of 53 significant earthquakes with a magnitude of at least 4.5 were recorded along the so-called Ring of Fire, round the Pacific rim – threatening trans-Pacific submarine cables.

The 25,000km, six-fibre-pair, 72Tbps cable will connect Africa and Asia to the Americas using a new diverse and seismically calm route, evading the serious risks of the Pacific.

We always like to start with the “why”, and Thomas says that there are five reasons why the project was undertaken in the first place.

“The first is to provide direct connectivity to our key partner markets,” she says.

In particular there are growth prospects for both South Africa and the southern Africa region. “We call the system SAEx 1 and SAEx 2.” South Atlantic Express is SAEx 1 and South Asia Express is SAEx 2. “We see them as key to cement the growing global importance of the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] nations.”

Thomas says the need to provide the most direct route – and hence the lowest latency access – from South Africa to the Americas is another reason.

“From Cape Town to the east coast of the US, we can offer 130 milliseconds for traffic. If you go up the west coast of Africa and across the North Atlantic cables, it’s over 200 milliseconds. We will beat that.”

She adds that, for Africa, the route removes the interdependency the continent has on the developed world for its access to technology.

“One issue that SAEx does address is we avoid the dependency that many African countries have had in terms of trade and to a degree air links, which is always having to follow the patterns established in the colonial past with dependency on accessing the developed world through ties to Europe’s ‘Empires of the Past’,” she says.

“Africa as a region is now developing quite rapidly, in terms of the use of new technologies and natural resources required for the manufacture of much of the hardware in new technology. The continent needs to develop access to other parts of the world like North America, South America and Asia. These new developments will avoid a type of digital colonialism. We don’t want to have to go through Europe to get to those regions.”

The third reason she says is helping to achieve global network security. “The rapid growth of mission critical subsea systems in recent years has highlighted the need to provide secure alternative routes for traffic between regions, avoiding the network congestion points, such as in the Straits of Luzon, the Mediterranean and Egypt.”

One of the key recommendations of the 2010 study, the Reliability of the Global Undersea Cable Communications Infrastructure, was the need for diversity of cable routes – especially for the health of the financial sector which relies on submarine cables. And SAEx provides just that diversity.

The fourth reason is to provide connectivity between coastal locations within South Africa and to provide connectivity between systems along the east and west coasts of Africa. Thomas adds that this also enhances network security.

“Our last reason would be that latency offered on SAEx from India to New York, or Singapore to New York, will be broadly similar to a system following a Pacific routing and a US terrestrial transit, therefore reinforcing SAEx’s status as an obvious diversity path,” she explains.

The project build has been broken up into three stages, the first being SAEx 1 from South Africa to the US, in addition to increased connectivity between South Africa and Fortaleza, Brazil. Thomas says: “We will interconnect at Fortaleza with a partner system to ensure faster access to the US.”

Thomas won’t say name the partner, but confirms that the partner is already operating its system – so SAEx doesn’t have to worry about the various licensing and permitting issues.

This first stage also includes connectivity to the St Helena and Ascension islands in the Atlantic, with stubbed branching units for future extensions to the US and West Africa. Stage one is due to be ready for service in the first half of 2020.

The second stage focuses on two main trunks, one from South Africa to India and another from South Africa to Singapore (SAEx 2), with two stubbed branching units to allow future connectivity to Mauritius, Reunion and Madagascar.

Thomas says that SAEx will build those out “when we know we have partners who are interested in landing those cables”.

The third and final stage is the build out of a direct link to Virginia Beach in the US, through connection to the stubbed branching unit just off Fortaleza, separate from SAEx 1.

“If we can go to west Africa by then, we will,” adds Thomas. “We expect to close financing discussions in the next several weeks and reach financial close either by the end of 2018 or early 2019. This will lead us to an overall completion of the key stages – one and two – by the first quarter and the third stage by the second quarter of 2021.”

On the much-debated topic of data centre versus cable landing station, Thomas seems to favour the data centre saying that connecting directly into the data centre “is a trend in our network design. It’s a more effective approach, and more attractive.”

She adds that they still require a cable station to house the power feed equipment. She sees “much of the transmission equipment being housed in local data centres. In terms of capacity originating or terminating in South Africa and countries reached via terrestrial networks from South Africa, it represents a logical point to interface with our customers.”

As for traffic that is transiting South Africa through the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, Thomas says, “we are still evaluating whether the interconnection between SAEx 1 and SAEx 2 is best achieved in the cable landing station or at a local data centre.”

One of the biggest opportunities that has come about through the development of the cable is the ability to offer small islands like Ascension and St Helena connections to the global network.

“Like many small oceanic islands, both have strategic importance as locations for new technology satellite systems or government services and they have the potential for demand on a scale much greater than the size and population suggests.”

Additionally, Thomas says that there is an opportunity to work with Angola’s SACS to provide mutual restoration for both systems, if required. “We’ve started conversations on that,” she adds.

The increasing amount of data coming from Asia has been another big talking point for the subsea community, a fact that Thomas says has been “a major consideration in the evolution of the SAEx network”. She adds that SAEx 2 is a network extension required by the company’s strategic partners, “and one which also helps to fulfil the communications needs of Asia more widely.”

As our conversation turns to 5G and the internet of things (IoT) Thomas explains that these technologies are still emerging and therefore have no direct effect on the cable and its operations.

“Because 5G and IoT are at such an early stage they are not currently driving the need for increased telecoms infrastructure. Their impact has yet to filter through to what is currently being planned.”

The entrance of over-the-top (OTT) providers into the subsea cable market is different. Thomas says that they are having a significant impact on the design and cost of global networks.

“With content the main component of demand for capacity, their influence will only grow, unless they are subject to the types of rules and regulations more typically associated with the traditional telecommunications operators, which seems unlikely. The bottom line is they will try to avoid being seen as telecoms operators, and their practices will ensure they continue to expand and use systems without having to be constrained by what telecoms operators face.”

Once the system is built, SAEx International will act as a wholesaler using partner data centres and supporting them. “The way we intend to operate with our strategic partners is to outsource our operations including NOC services, and specific regional marketing and sales activities even though we will keep general management oversight of that,” she concludes.