Sparked by the arrival of major offshore cables, Africa is undergoing a mini-bandwidth boom.
Operators are laying metro and longhaul fiber networks across sub-Sarahan Africa, helping to make it one of the world's fastest-growing economic regions.
Until the arrival of the Seacom subsea cable in 2009, businesses and Internet cafes paid thousands of dollars a month for low-speed satellite connections. (See Tata Anchors Seacom Cable and Seacom, Interoute Link Africa.)
Now multiple fiber systems deliver bandwidth directly from African landing stations to Europe, the Middle East or India. All but three African countries -- Eritrea, Central African Republic and South Sudan -- now have some kind of fiber connection to subsea systems, according to Analysys Mason .
"Before the submarine cables, there was no point in having high capacity fiber networks. You would have a lot of data sloshing around," said Robert Schumann, a principal at Analysys Mason in Johannesburg.
Now, he says almost every African country has a national ICT backbone project, usually heavily sponsored by the government.
The most aggressive in taking advantage of this firehose of offshore capacity is Harare-based Liquid Telecom . It has built out Africa's largest long-haul fiber network -- the Pan-Africa Network -- comprising 17,000km of fiber across a dozen countries in southern and east Africa. The latest segment, the East Africa Fibre Ring, which came online in June, provides the first redundant link between Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Liquid is a privately held firm part-owned by Strive Masiyiwa's Econet Wireless. It began as a satellite operator, but now generates more than half of its revenue from wholesaling fiber capacity.
As well as trunk networks, it's also building out FTTH broadband access connectivity in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and is planning to start soon in Kenya, one of Africa's hottest telecom markets, where five telcos are deploying either metro or long-distance fiber.
CTO Ben Roberts, who also heads up the Kenya operation, says the strategy is to roll out fiber in unserved areas.
"Most of our investment is going into metro fiber in smaller communities, to connect up business, banks, governments, universities," he says. Getting those anchor customers hooked up makes the business case for a long-distance cable.
Liquid says it's adding fiber at a rate of more than 100 kilometers per week, and expects to invest US$200 million during the next three years on fiber, VSAT and other transport technologies.
Building the Pan-African network meant negotiating with local governments as well as some of the world's most difficult terrains, Roberts said.
"For some of the fiber we built initially, we did have some political challenges," he says. The biggest problem was not telecom regulators, who appreciate the need for connectivity, but other government departments, such as roads and utilities.
The role of the Chinese vendors, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763), with hefty vendor financing from Chinese government banks, has also been important in Africa, including the Pan-African Network.
Huawei declined to share specifics about its African fiber business, although it said it had provided Kenya's national backbone and 2,800 fiber kilometers for Angola's Unitel.
ZTE said its WDM products were being deployed in Ethiopia, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania, among other countries.
Zhang Chao, marketing director for ZTE's Mideast and Africa wireline group, said broadband drivers were "services such as distance learning, remote medical services and e-commerce."
But he said network deployment was hampered by "low-quality work" from local sub-contractors and frequent "man-made damage" to the fiber.
"As construction investment is insufficient, many backbone WDM networks have no ring network protection, which may cause service interruption after link disconnection and long service restoration time," he added.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading