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Q&A: SEACOM’s CEO Mark Simpson

August 17, 2012 • Features

SEACOM recently celebrated the 3rd anniversary of its commercial launch. The company remains focused on the objective of helping to bring about ‘a fully connected society’ by 2020. IT News Africa caught up with CEO Mark Simpson to find out how far the company has progressed, wherein lie the challenges and what direction the company is taking within Africa’s highly competitive connectivity marketplace.

Mark Simpson, CEO, SEACOM. (Image: File)

* What was the strategy in 2009 and what is the strategy now?

When SEACOM came to the market in 2009 we were very much focussed on breaking the international bandwidth bottleneck by bringing high quality and affordable bandwidth to many countries in eastern and southern Africa for the first time.

Since then SEACOM has evolved into a major pan-African network operator driving the development of the African Internet and offering a range of wholesale services on a network that continues to grow and expand.  As part of our growth and ongoing investment we are also extending our offerings for ICT infrastructure through our subsidiary Pamoja, which provides cloud services on wholesale to service providers.

 * Please expand on the company’s presence across Africa?

Stretching some 17 000 km along the eastern and southern African coastlines and onwards to India and Europe, the SEACOM system has already connected many African countries including South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Djibouti and Ethiopia. In many instances, SEACOM’s arrival heralded access to previously unavailable bandwidth at much more accessible pricing.

* Why is LTE signficant and what are the issues with rollout? 

This technology and other broadband capable wireless technologies such as 3G are key to bringing faster and more affordable mobile broadband service to the African market. The allocation of the underlying spectrum is critical to ensure rapid and appropriate commercial deployments of LTE networks. A well-managed and timely process for spectrum allocation and the necessary regulatory environment will position South Africa as a continued leader in African telecoms and ICT infrastructure where technology evolves rapidly.

* What is the cost of broadband Internet – cost in SA compared to the rest of the world?

Telecommunications prices seem high benchmarked against many developed markets and there are some stubborn bottlenecks that still need to be addressed, even if international bandwidth prices have fallen dramatically over the past three years.

But South Africa is moving in the right direction and we need to remind ourselves how far we have come since SEACOM arrived in 2009, where the price per MB on a cellphone was over R2 and uncapped Internet was a dream. Today, the price per MB is at the 10c mark and uncapped lines are available from a host of providers for a few hundred rand a month.

* What are the challenges to further rollout?

We need to see more competition in the national network – there is not yet as much competition at this level of the telecommunications infrastructure as there is in the undersea cable market. We are pleased to see a number of providers building and rolling out infrastructure to link up major South African cities and towns, but this process needs to be accelerated and existing infrastructure assets need to be well utilised also. In addition the cost and availability of the “last mile” connecting to end users needs to be addressed and key initiatives here will be in spectrum allocation for wireless access and local loop unbundling on the fixed networks.

* Is creating a fully connected society by 2020 an achievable goal and what role should government play in helping to support this ambition? 

The Department of Communications (DoC) has set a target to deliver 100% broadband penetration in South Africa by 2020.  To achieve this goal, operators and governments should step up investments in joining small and remote towns to the rapidly evolving main trunk network.

Regulators and operators must focus as much on local access networks (wired and wireless) as they are on submarine cables and backhaul connectivity to drive growth.

This means that they need to ensure that frequency spectrum is available in a structured manner and that regulatory hurdles to the deployment of new metro access networks are removed.

 * What is your view of the WACS (West Africa Cable System) and its contribution to drive Internet throughout the continent?

WACS, running along the west coast of Africa, complements the SEACOM system running along the eastern coastline. We have welcomed the arrival of WACS and acquired a significant amount of capacity in the cable to improve the resilience, reliability and diversity of our own network while offering customers efficient access to new markets.

Apart from bringing more bandwidth into the continent, WACS offers an extra layer of redundancy to the African Internet. The benefits of an even more reliable and high-quality service to service providers will translate into a better experience for the African Internet user.

* What is the state of broadband penetration in SA and in different parts of Africa?

New submarine cables such as SEACOM have helped to boost the performance and penetration of the Internet in many African countries while driving costs down for the end user. SEACOM alone has seen more than ten-fold increases in bandwidth penetration in several of Africa’s most underserved nations, driven by drops in connectivity prices and increases in terrestrial coverage.

3G cellular network technologies have helped to boost connectivity speeds to the end user and new terrestrial networks have helped to extend connectivity from submarine cable landing points into the African hinterland, areas that previously were only covered by expensive and limited satellite services. That said, many countries have Internet penetration of less than 10% or 15% and South African Internet penetration is just 17% – so we have lots of work to do.

Chris Tredger, Online Editor 

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