2Africa: the game-changer of the seas

2Africa: the game-changer of the seas

30 June 2020 | Natalie Bannerman

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Natalie Bannerman speaks to Jessica Gu of China Mobile International about the company’s part in the recently announced 2Africa subsea cable and the change it will create for the continent.

May saw the announcement of a game-changing submarine cable system being built in Africa called 2Africa.

The 37,000km cable will be one of the longest in the world — second only to SEA ME WE 3, that stands at a length of 39,000km. To be built by a consortium comprising China Mobile International (CMI), Facebook, MTN GlobalConnect, Orange, stc, Telecom Egypt, Vodafone and WIOCC, it has been hailed as a game- changer. Capacity spoke to CMI’s Jessica Gu, about what this system will mean for the continent and why the company wanted to be part of it. Discussing the key drivers behind CMI’s decision to join this consortium, Gu said: “In light of the active business interaction between Africa and Asia, there are increasing numbers of foreign investors, including China, developing their business in Africa.

“In order to provide a better telecommunications service to the African market and connectivity for Chinese enterprises, we need to build a com- prehensive subsea cable to serve the African continent and Middle East region.”

In her own words, 2Africa is one of the largest subsea cable projects in the world connecting Europe, the Middle East, and 16 countries in Africa — 23 in total across all three continents. “Through the 2Africa
[cable], together with our global network resources including SEA-ME-WE-5, AAE-1, we can connect our customers between Asia, Africa, Middle East and Europe to realise our commitment to our customers.” With a design capacity of up to 180Tbps on certain parts of the system, 2Africa will deliver much needed internet capacity and reliability across large parts of Africa. It will also supplement the fast-growing capacity demand in the Middle East and support the growth of 4G, 5G and fixed broadband access for hundreds of millions of people. 2Africa cable will use ASN’s new SDM1 technology, which was named as builder of the new system, enabling the deployment of up to 16 fibre pairs instead of the eight fibre pairs supported by older technologies, bringing much greater and more cost-effective capacity. If that weren’t enough, the cable will feature optical switching technology to enable the flexible management of bandwidth. It will also use an increased cable burial of up to 50% compared to older systems, and its route will avoid locations of known subsea disturbance — making it as secure as possible.

Previously referred to as the Simba cable, with Simba being the internal name used for the project pre-launch, the 2Africa cable is an endeavour with a long history of rumours. It was originally thought to be a project between Facebook, MTN and Vodacom. It is likely to spur added data centre and fibre investment at its landing points. For CMI’s part this added connectivity, resilience and improvement latency, complements the company’s existing offerings in the region.

“The ability for Africa to access the best-connected data centre hub in the region will be beneficial as it enables new, low latency access to content and cloud services previously accessed via distant content delivery networks (CDNs) in Europe.” In addition, the looped design of the 2Africa cable, means it is already able to provide the route bidirectional diversity. 

“CMI will provide internet capacity and reliability across much of the Middle East and Africa through 2Africa and our global network resources.” Conducted largely in private, we now know that the project has been some time in the making. According to the official 2Africa website, the investor partners of 2Africa started the cable project with the signing of the memorandum of understanding back in November 2018.

This was then followed by a tender process which ended with ASN awarded the contract to build the 2Africa cable system the following May. Beyond the network advantages of such a substantive system, 2Africa also stands to benefit local users by boosting Africa’s digital economy. At the time of the announcement, Najam Ahmad, VP of network infrastructure at Facebook said:

“We’ve seen first-hand the positive impact that increased connectivity has on communities, from education to healthcare.

“We know that economies flourish when there is widely accessible internet for businesses. 2Africa is a key pillar supporting this tremendous internet expansion as part of Africa’s surging digital economy.”

Echoing his sentiment’s Gu said: “2Africa will provide much needed internet capacity and reliability across much of the Middle East and Africa supporting the growth of 4G, 5G, and fixed broadband access for hundreds of millions of people at reasonable cost.”

It fair to describe 2Africa as a true carrier’s cable given that access to the system will be allocated and divided on a “fair and equitable basis”, with capacity delivered to carrier-neutral data centres or open-access cable landing stations.

The use of a combination of both data centre and cable landing station, according to Gu, will vary by location and the existing infrastructure in place at each landing point.

“It is the conclusion of a combination of multiple factors, including quality of infrastructure, distance between data centres and cable landing station, time to market, ease of access and convenience to customer, etc. The decisions will be made by all the members together,” she explained.

Aside from bolstering the digital economy, 2Africa also comes at a time when the rate of growth in broadband traffic is increasing exponentially. Additionally, consumer demand for new technologies and products like cloud computing, on-demand video and social media are also developing rapidly. As a result, the demand for new connectivity is driven by an increasing business environment that requires ultra-fast broadband access for sustainable growth and development.

In short, the purpose of the new system is to “significantly increase the capacity, quality and availability of internet connectivity between Africa and the rest of the world.”

Businesses and consumers are set to benefit from enhanced capacity and reliability needed for such services such as telecommuting, HDTV broadcasting, 

internet services, video conferencing, advanced multimedia and mobile video applications. The project will also lay the foundations for future mobile and fixed broadband access. This will help African countries to implement their respective 2030 visions and to meet many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that require internet connectivity. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is contained in a document entitled Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable

Development adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. It sets out a new global development framework centred around 17 Sustainable Development Goals with a total of 169 targets covering economic and social development, and environmental protection.

“This is of particular significance for a continent that has historically been behind the global average in internet penetration,” the 2Africa website states.

Mostly interestingly, 2Africa includes the option of an optical crossing between East Africa and Europe. The consortium, along with Airtel, has entered into an agreement with Telecom Egypt to provide a new transEgypt crossing linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. This includes new cable landing stations and the deployment of next-gen fibre on two new, diverse terrestrial routes parallel to the Suez Canal from Ras Ghareb to Port Said, and a third subsea link that will provide a third path between Ras Ghareb and Suez.

“Telecom Egypt’s contribution to 2Africa marks an important milestone in our endeavour to contribute to digital transformation in Africa,” said Adel Hamed, Telecom Egypt’s managing director and CEO, at the time of the announcement.

“For years, we have accomplished tangible steps in revamping our international infrastructure and increasing our assets’ geodiversity in order to keep pace with the rising global demand for large bandwidth and global reach. We trust that 2Africa will be a rich addition to our diversified investments in the subsea cable industry.”

“It could provide higher availability and reliability to the 2Africa system compared to any other existing cable system across East Africa and Europe,” says Gu on the transEgypt crossing. With a tentative ready for service (RSF) date of 2023/2024, we know that 2Africa has a long road ahead.

And on the next stage of development for the system, unsurprisingly Gu says it’s all about forming partnerships with local providers. “CMI and 2Africa partners will focus on the close cooperation with local service providers, ensuring the delivery of capacity to carrier-neutral data centres or open access cable landing stations, all of which develop a healthy internet ecosystem by facilitating greatly improved accessibility for businesses and consumers alike.”