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WACS has landed

April 19, 2011 • Top Stories

Members of the beach crew haul the rope in with the WACS cable in tow (Image credit: Angela Meadon)

After a 14 000 kilometer journey down the West Coast of Africa, the small town of Yserfontein marks the South African landing site for the West Africa Cable System (WACS). This multi-million dollar project marks an exponential leap in South Africa’s broadband supply, which has been brought about by an unprecedented level of cooperation between the continents largest telecoms operators.

The WACS cable runs along the West Coast of Africa, and is the first undersea broadband cable to land in Namibia, DRC, Togo and the Republic of Congo (amongst other countries). The Yserfontein landing marks the completion of the main trunk between South Africa and Europe. The WACS cable will be ready for commercial service in Q1, 2012.

The cable has a current capacity of 5.2 Terabits per second (Tbps), at this speed one could (theoretically) download more than 8000 DVD’s per minute. This remarkable capacity is more than the total of all the other undersea fibre-optic cables which service South Africa, added together. The cable has been designed to support present, and future, internet, e-commerce, data, video and voice services. The system makes use of dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) technology, which enables bidirectional communications over one strand of fibre, as well as the multiplication of capacity.

The WACS cable is owned, operated and maintained by a consortium of major telecommunications operators, both African and international. In South Africa, this consortium is represented by Broadband Infraco, MTN, Neotel, Telkom and Vodacom. This unprecedented level of cooperation has many benefits for the companies involved. Not only do they share the economic risk involved in this $600 million project, but they also benefit from the many years of experience that each of these companies brings to the table.

Kanagaratnan Lambotharan, the Chief Technology Officer at MTN South Africa, has found that although consensus among the consortium partners can be difficult to obtain, the fact that this cooperation puts all of the partners in the consortium on an equal footing, and exposes all of them to the growth opportunities makes it worth the effort.

In an interview, Johan Meyer the Executive for Global Capacity Business at Telkom, told IT News Africa that working in the consortium has been different to the company;s previous experiences because the other partners are their direct competition. “We welcome them on board,”he says. “”When we realised that this would be strategically important for the country, we invited them to get involved. It’s insensible not to do it like this.”

“One way we lost out over the past two years, in my department especially, is that we have had quite a lot of staff losses to other companies in the group.”

The consortium has had to work very closely, and under unusual circumstances, because each company has had to work together as customers, suppliers and competitors. Ït’s a fine balance, and sometimes it’s tough. But the fact that this has worked so well means we may have more opportunities to work together on this in the future.” Meyer explains.

While South Africa is currently serviced by three other undersea fibre-optic cables (EASSy, SEACOM and SAT3/SAFE), WACS provides much needed bandwidth and redundancy for our market. Further up the West Coast, however, WACS will provide much-needed broadband access to many countries.

One of the great strengths of WACS is the fact that it is intended to provide true open access for operators in the countries in which it landed. Although some countries may be hampered by regulatory constraints, the consortium partners do not have the right to refuse access to the cable station to any operator who has the means to pay for the facility they use. This means that WACS is open to all licensed operators, in all the countries it has landed, and the bandwidth will be provided to them at cost.

WACS is expected to be the flag-ship cable in Western Africa for the next ten years. It will be joined in Q3 2012 by another 5.1 Tbps cable, ACE.

By Angela Meadon

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