Until recently, Africa had some of the highest international bandwidth costs anywhere in the world. Although it varied from country to country, the international element of the cost to the consumer was a significant proportion of the overall cost he or she paid. The same was true for institutional users like governments, or for those in the private sector. This cost affected both voice (fixed and mobile) and data users alike. With International trade and the exchange of ideas essential to Africa’s success, this high cost of international bandwidth posed a significant barrier to African countries’ ability to participate in world trade and to increase its capacity and skills. Without cheaper international bandwidth African countries ran the danger of being left behind in the global race. In the past year, many African countries have gained access to fibre-optic international submarine cables for the first time: some directly and some, like landlocked countries, via terrestrial fibreoptic links with neighbouring countries. Other countries are gaining access to a second or even third international cable. The arrival of fibre-optic technology has not only improved Internet connectivity, but prices have come down and service levels have increased – especially in the East African region, which in the past year has seen two submarine cables arrive on its shores. The arrival is a culmination of the long-awaited undersea fibre-optic connection to the region – which was the only part of the world missing such a link, thus leaving satellite technology as the only means of connecting to the rest of the globe. These multimillion-dollar undersea fibre-optic cables are expected to create jobs; as well as provide reliable Internet and telecommunication services to industry stakeholders by minimizing the difficulties of switching traffic between African countries and eliminating the inconveniences and added cost of first routing traffic to Europe – as was the case before. With affordable and efficient ICT infrastructure, African countries will also be able to venture into the field of business process outsourcing, a rapidly growing global industry. Improved connectivity has made broadband Internet access affordable to a much wider range of the population. The Internet has brought access to education, unbiased information, and improved competitiveness in the global marketplace: factors that are expected to empower and revolutionize African economies and societies. However, for the full benefit of the new international fibre-optic connectivity to unfold, all the other elements along the supply chain to the end user need to be developed.
• National fibre backbone networks to take the new cheap bandwidth to population centres around the country. For example, in Kenya the National Optic Fibre Broadband Infrastructure (NOFBI) connects major towns and border points, while connections to district headquarters will provide links to other small arteries that connect the end users to the main cables;
• Policy, legal and regulatory regimes for fair and open access to the international fibre-optic cables and the national backbone; and
• Wireless mobile broadband infrastructure (and competition) on the access level.
The connection to the submarine cables does not necessarily spell the demise of satellite connectivity. With fibre-optic technology alone, only the users in urban areas will benefit from this Internet revolution. The last mile connectivity is still a challenge and this is where satellite broadband services will be invaluable in empowering thousands of Africans with high-speed Internet.
.... but satellite newcomer, O3b could change the game in 2011...
With the number of undersea fibre-optic cables it has lit-up over the past year and a number of new connectivity projects due for completion in the next 18 months, Africa is swiftly leaving its ‘dark continent’ nickname behind and becoming one of the emerging markets with the greatest potential worldwide. And this change has only come about because the buyers of infrastructure (primarily governments) are growing to understand the intrinsic differences between voice, video and data traffic and more importantly, which technologies are better suited to each of these different traffic types.
Using the right technologies
Before the huge influx of fibre infrastructure hit the continent, satellite was tipped as the technology Africa would use to satisfy its growing hunger for broadband Internet connectivity. Serving as reinforcement of this, the continent was already making extensive use of satellite for the delivery of television content. The only problem was (and to this day remains) that satellite was (and is) well suited for delivering a television signal, but particularly inefficient for delivering the kind of connectivity required to enable world-class broadband Internet infrastructure. Part of the reason is latency. Because this technology requires that data be transmitted to a satellite orbiting the earth and then relayed to another point on the earth’s surface, and for the reverse route to be followed when data is transmitted back to the source, it’s much slower than fibre connectivity. Then, there’s the effect environmental factors such as rain can have on the quality or usability of the service to consider. Another other part of the reason is cost. Will Hahn, Principal Research Analyst in the Communications Service Provider Business Research at Gartner says the current costs for a satellite link are considered exorbitant versus one based on fibre connectivity. Satellites are expensive to build and launch, and expensive to maintain. For distributing a television signal, there’s a wealth of users to amortise this over – and traffic tends to be one-way in nature, so the capacity a broadcaster requires on a satellite is minimal. Hahn says that current satellite-based solutions are only really an option that should be considered for Internet backhaul when terrain is too harsh for physical infrastructure to be laid, where political instability is a barrier to investment protection, or there’s an urgent need for backhaul capability and a shortage of time to lay technology such as fibre. And although Africa has had its challenges, it’s a little sensationalist to cite untenable terrain, political instability or the inability for a country to wait for its connectivity as a viable reason to use satellite over fibre.
Changing the model
Hahn says the only conceivable reason one would want to use any of the current satellitebased offerings, as part of a broadband strategy is redundancy. “And as I understand it, FIFA will be doing exactly that during the Soccer World Cup which South Africa will be hosting in a couple of months’ time,” he says. While Hahn says the need for a redundant, backup solution could well see the way satellite services are marketed changing over the coming years, unless there’s dramatic change in the value proposition of satellite, it’s unlikely it will ever truly compete with fibre as an Internet backhaul technology. For this reason, Hahn believes the satellite value proposition is due for some change over the coming months and years. “The recent popularity of fibre-based connectivity is sure to elicit a competitive response from purveyors of satellite-based technology,” he says. “The first example of such a response is evident in what being touted by O3b Networks’ who has an ambitious plan to deliver a fibre-like Internet backhaul service using a constellation of medium-orbit satellites,” he adds.
Too good to be true?
O3b’s value proposition is ambitious and almost too good to be true, since it’s hard to believe it’s taken this long for someone to discover that a technology that’s been around for this long, such as satellite, could be used in a more cost-effective, results yielding way. O3b’s value proposition is hard to believe since Hahn says it believes its constellation of satellites will not only deliver the performance level, but also a lower cost level than fibre. It says that’s because its satellites will be in medium-orbit, which it says means data transfers have less distance to cover and as such will be conducted with lower latency levels. O3b says this also means that a lower number of satellites can be used to cater for a much larger coverage area.
Seeing is believing
Right now, O3b is in the process of approaching global carriers and ISP s with the prospect of providing them with backhaul services out of landlocked parts of Africa and South America. And with backers such as SES , Google Inc., Liberty Global, Inc., HSBC Principal Investments and Northbridge Venture Partners, the company is getting a great deal of interest from the market. O3b’s services are due to commence in the first quarter of 2011 and it reports that the company is still on track to deliver. “If even half of O3b’s claims come through, it will change forever how satellite is marketed and viewed in the market,” Gartner’s Hahn concludes. If O3b doesn’t succeed however it will almost certainly point to the end of the road for satellite – at least as an Internet backhaul provision technology – in the near future.
As this issue of Africa Telecoms is focusing on satellite and fibre in Africa, do you feel that these communications technologies will work together concurrently in the future or will one or the other dominate within an African context?
We are already seeing the migration of international connectivity from satellite onto submarine fibre, with many carriers having announced plans to terminate satellite circuits at the end of existing contracts. As the availability of diversely-routed international submarine connectivity continues to expand, we would expect to see this trend continuing into the foreseeable future. Satellite will still have a part to play in extremely remote areas, but we expect to see fibre dominate in the future as we have seen in the rest of the world.
What do you see as the key differentiators between satellite and fibre connectivity?
Mainly, delay: for international connections satellites introduce long delays because of the often long communication path between the two locations. Fibre-optics tend to be deployed to minimise route distance, and submarine cables typically follow the most direct coastal route between major coastal locations, resulting in much lower delays. Secondly, scalability: fibre-optic systems are extremely scalable - once installed, fibre-optic connectivity is relatively cheap to upgrade. Capacity upgrades continue to be possible, even on old submarine systems. Once deployed, satellites cannot be physically upgraded. Lastly, cost: satellite costs are not distance dependent, making them particularly suited to delivering service between remote locations and where demand is low. The build cost of fibre is directly related to distance, so it is most costeffective when demand is high or growing fast and for meeting long-term, rather than low-demand, short-term requirements. Both are susceptible to service interruption, although weather features are much more common than earthquakes! In both cases, an alternative route is required for back-up.
Could you give us a synopsis of the rather complex ownership structure put in place for the construction of the EASSy cable and how WIOCC fits into this as an special purpose vehicle (SPV)? Was the creation of the SPV a regulatory requirement and/or why was it instituted?
Following extensive dialogue amongst all of the stakeholders, a mutual understanding was reached by governments concerned, telecom operators and a number of Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) in June 2006 around a hybrid project structure involving both direct consortium members and an SPV that met the Governments’ developmental objectives of ensuring low-cost open access to international connectivity, while providing for financing flexibility and maintaining the commercial appeal of the EASSy Project. The SPV was established to create a vehicle to leverage debt financing from the DFIs and to reduce the upfront equity requirements of certain operators who wished to avail themselves of financing. Thus, in this “hybrid” structure, the larger telecom companies invested directly in their own right, while a number of smaller ones invested through an SPV, named WIOCC.
How active, as a shareholder, has WIOCC been in the construction phase of the EASSy cable?
WIOCC has been extremely active, particularly in its chairmanship of the EASSy Technical Working Group and co-chairing of the Procurement Group. This involves directing the progress of engineering, provisioning, installation, bringing into service and the continued operation of EASSy. Specifically, WIOCC has driven negotiations on construction in Somalia, marine contracts, testing, landing station construction, Data Communications Network management and Operations & Maintenance budgets. WIOCC also chairs the Investment & Assignment sub-committee and co-chairs the Operations & Maintenance sub-committee.
The relationship between WIOCC and EASSy is quite an interesting one, particularly as WIOCC is still reselling capacity in the EASSy cable. Does this offer any benefits to WIOCC clients? Considering this, why would an operator work with WIOCC as opposed to directly with EASSy?
There are two key reasons for an operator to work directly with WIOCC: Firstly, as an SPV, WIOCC is able to offer connectivity into all nine landing countries (and onward to a further 11 countries), whereas other EASSy shareholders are only able to serve their own markets. For an operator this means simplification - they can buy connectivity into many locations through a single relationship (with WIOCC), and avoid having to maintain relationships with a number of different organisations. Additionally, WIOCC is the largest shareholder in EASSy, owning nearly a third of the capacity on the system. Whilst many other shareholder have invested for their own use (and this will take preference), WIOCC's capacity allocation is more than sufficient to service shareholders and other operators wanting EASSy capacity.
When is the cable expected to go live?
We are completing the construction phase right now. This will be followed by two months of comprehensive end-to-end testing of the system. The System Ready for Service Date is 30th June 2010.
With the Seacom cable having landed and a number of other cables being planned, does this change any of the initial business objectives set out by WIOCC?And will WIOCC be looking to invest in additional capacity on any of the other cables?
The short answer to the first question is “no”. There was never any doubt that East Africa would become a competitive market for submarine connectivity; the only question was when and how long would it take. WIOCC is backed by some of the key carriers in the region, and we believe that we offer customers a clear and compelling business proposition compared with competing systems. EASSy is being constructed with a high degree of resilience built in, but we are also considering options to further improve the physical diversity of our routing. Clearly, other cables along the east and west coasts present us with a variety of options that we are exploring.
With the EASSY cable having landed in Kenya, is WIOCC able to currently offer capacity to clients in East Africa? If so, how much capacity has already been sold? What percentage of WIOCC capacity has been taken up by your shareholders and how much is available to the open market?
As you would expect, WIOCC is working closely with its shareholders to quantify their needs, as well as meeting with other prospective customers to further discuss their requirements. WIOCC shareholders have all signed up to significant amounts of capacity, but as WIOCC has the largest shareholding in the EASSy system there is plenty of capacity to satisfy the demand from the open market.
WIOCC seems to have a number of key differentiators to its competitors. Could you please talk us through how you feel these aspects will benefit WIOCC customers as we move into the future?
There are a number of ways in which customers will benefit:
a) WIOCC will be the first to offer direct connectivity to Europe from East Africa. Unlike our competitors (who route via the Middle East or India), EASSy will connect directly between East Africa and the key internet exchanges in Europe and the US. This will offer WIOCC customers the opportunity to differentiate their services by offering the fastest possible route to many of the most popular sites on the Internet.
b) WIOCC customers will be able to take advantage of high-speed international connectivity from a wider variety of locations. Our 12 shareholders' extensive terrestrial, fibreoptic networks are being interconnected to create the most comprehensive access network in the region.
c) WIOCC offers customers truly affordable international connectivity, with a very different pricing model to our competitors. Our flexible contract terms enable carriers to start small and increase their connectivity in line with demand. This provides a level playing field for small, medium and large service providers to compete head-to-head, encouraging them to develop cost-effective, highperformance business solutions and services for the end user. We offer contracts as short as one month, and for as little as 2Mbps of capacity.
d) WIOCC will deliver very high levels of resilience and reliability. The way in which EASSy has been designed minimises outages. The cable itself is based on a 'collapsed ring' structure, meaning that we can route traffic the opposite way around the ring in the case of a cable break. Whilst this may increase delays a little, it means that a single break in the cable will not result in a complete loss of service. Interconnection of our shareholders' terrestrial networks will also offer alternative routes between many of the landing stations should there be a more extensive break in the cable. Finally, WIOCC is negotiating interconnection agreements with a variety of international cable operators, which will enable us to take advantage of a variety of international routing options. The key benefit to our customers is reduced risk of complete service outage, without having to purchase capacity on multiple cable or satellite systems.
Are there any plans in the future for the EASSy cable to be extended to continue up the West coast of Africa? If not do you feel there would be merit in evaluating the viability of a continuous fibre ring around Africa?
We have no plans to physically extend the EASSy cable up the West coast. However, there are clear benefits to our shareholders and customers in being able to extend their reach to other parts of Africa; and in having access to a diverse route for resilience. We are therefore exploring options for meeting these requirements with a variety of organisations.
With WIOCC’s Onward Connectivity seemingly having direct backhaul access to Europe, Asia, North America and notably in the Eastern and Southern regions of Africa, are there plans to link into the Central African Backbone (CAB) project once completed? Then, are there any plans to extend this connectivity through to Western and Northern Africa?
WIOCC has already announced that it will offer connectivity between 20 countries in Africa, including landlocked countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. One of the countries to which we will connect is Sudan, which is eligible to participate in the CAB project. Whilst there are no formal plans in place right now to interconnect with CAB, we are exploring many avenues to broaden coverage including connectivity to other regions of Africa.
With winter still being in felt in parts of Europe, Georgian pensioner Hayastan Shakarian, was out gathering and collecting firewood when by accident she cut through the fibre-optic cables connecting Georgia and neighbouring Armenia to the Internet. In today’s connected world, it has become inconceivable and not easily tolerated for a nation to be disconnected from the Interweb. When such occurrences take place, the red phones start ringing and the bat signal can be seen for miles around. Batman, Gotham City needs you. In the case of Georgia and Armenia, the culprit was not the Joker nor the Riddler, but an old age pensioner staving off the cold. In the blink of a KAPPOW, WHACK, CRUNCH, AND BANG, a little old lady armed with nothing more than an orange saw, literally single-handedly caused havoc in two countries. Was this the work of a new villain or some cunning secret agent planning to take both countries off the grid? Or as the terrified OAP is claiming, that this was all a terrible and ghastly mistake. “I have no idea what the Internet is,” she told reporters. As Shakarian told AFP that she was just a “poor old woman” who was not capable of committing such a crime. “I did not cut this cable. Physically, I could not do it,” she said, repeatedly bursting into tears as she spoke. Unfortunately, her pleas fell on deaf ears, as the Georgian Interior Ministry was, at the time of writing, planning to throw the full force of the law at her. According to them, Ms. Shakarian had confessed to cutting the fibre-optic cable, and so should be duly punished. What methods were used to elicit this confession we can only imagine. Possibly the threat of taking away her bus pass, or even worse, confiscating her trusted saw, had the desired effect. Georgian Railway Telecom, who owns the fiber cable, explained that the damage was so serious that it caused 90 per cent of private and corporate Internet users in neighbouring Armenia to lose access for nearly 12 hours while also hitting Georgian Internet service providers. “My mother is innocent. She is crying all the time. She is so scared,” said her son, Sergo Shakarian. In the end, whether Ms. Shakarian is convicted or simply cast as a villain, the punishment needs to fit the crime. As Robin, the Boy Wonder, undoubtedly would have exclaimed at these farcical events, “Holy priceless collection of Etruscan snoods, Batman!”
Satellite's here to Stay
With the wealth of fibre optic cabling being laid along Africa's coastline and the array of projects underway to connect landlocked countries to cables such as SEACOM, EASSY and WACS, you'd be forgiven for predicting a swift departure of the satellite communications services that have connected Africa to the rest of the world for so long. However, in reality, satellite technology isn't going
anywhere. As fibre becomes a more prolific part of Africa's infrastructural landscape, so the usage model for satellite will merely change.
Fibre’s cheap … well, cheaper than satellite. And with all the fibre being laid – both undersea and at a local level – satellite will soon be on its way out. Right? Wrong! Scott Sprague, Senior Vice President of Global Sales at SES says that today satellite is still an intrinsic part of the communications infrastructure of countries in the developing world, regardless of how much fibre they have in the ground. The difference is, where those countries classically relied on satellite for point-to-point communications, now fibre – a far more cost effective way of providing point-to-point connectivity – is the favoured technology. And satellite has moved onto other applications. “When I joined SES 10 years ago, fibre connectivity was making its way into the Indian market and the same predictions surfaced,” Sprague explains. “Instead of satellite disappearing however, the business model changed from one that was focused on point-topoint applications, to one that favoured point-to-multipoint applications. “Fast forward to today and we’re doing more satellite business in India than ever. The only difference is the business model,” he says. Sprague believes the same will be true in Africa over the coming decade. After all, it’s no secret that fibre cabling is more competitive on a cost per megabyte, point-to-point basis. And similarly, nothing competes with the cost efficiency satellite can offer in point-to-multipoint applications, such as Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) and Direct-to- Home TV. But, when you’re faced with an expensive solution versus no solution at all, the expensive solution is better than nothing. And with a dearth of better options on the connectivity front, satellite has been somewhat of a godsend for Africa.
Perfect for failover
Aside from satellite beginning to take on a role that’ s more centred on point-to-multipoint applications, Sprague says that satellite will continue to be a valuable failover for fibre connectivity. “Because it’s not quite as reliant on other infrastructure (such as electricity supply) as fibre optic networks are, satellite tends to be more reliable,” Sprague says. “And this in turn makes it a perfect backup solution for a fibre backbone,” he says. A great example of this in practice, Sprague says, is French Polynesia where satellite technology was the islands together. “When a large fibre cable was run to the main island, there wasn’t any real need for the satellite to stay in service, but instead of it going away completely, the satellite technology was kept around as a failover,” he says. “And considering a failure in the fibre cable results in all communications being interrupted, the satellite has been used from time to time,” he adds.
Looking at the future, Sprague says there’s very little that’s capable of competing with satellite when one considers an entire continent like Africa can be covered with a single beam. “It’s easy to deploy, cost effective to manage and above all, reliable,” he says. And this is the primary reason Sprague says that SES currently has six customers in the Direct-to-Home TV space today. “While they’re still in the early stages of their development, there’s interest in increasing the number of Direct-to-Home TV services available within both regional markets and the pan-African market,” he says. And one of the most interesting changes this has effected in the market as a whole, Sprague says, is the amount of TV content being developed in Africa, and being consumed in Africa. “Three or four years ago, Africa was pulling the vast majority of its content from other parts of the world. Now there’s a wealth of content being developed on the continent, for consumption on the continent,” he says. And history shows that this is only the start. As more consumers get their hands on the technology and devices begin making their way into the hands of the man in the street, this will scale upwards at a blistering pace.
Banking, rural telcos and more
Outside of entertainment, Sprague says SES looks after a number of banking institutions throughout Africa that rely heavily on the star configuration of their multipoint network when it comes to providing the backbone for very data intensive applications. “Here we use satellite as the main mechanism for pushing and pulling large volumes of banking data from branches,” he says. The same applies when it comes to enabling rural telco networks for villages throughout Africa. Satellite provides an asymmetrical link, so it’s perfect for applications, such as browsing the Internet and downloading media, since the requests for the download are small but the downloads are exponentially bigger. Sprague says that there’s also strong opportunity for satellite when it comes to providing services to mobile telcos, especially if one considers the strong push underway for triple-play offerings in Africa. “Mobile telcos are looking at hybrid networks that consist of both terrestrial and satellite infrastructure in providing for their customers,” he says. “Also, this is often not just about companies that exist inside Africa,” he adds. “In many cases we’re engaging with service providers outside of Africa – most commonly, from India and China – that are looking to take advantage of market dynamics here,” he says.
Still a fibre competitor
Satellite’s better suitability to point-to-multipoint doesn’t mean it’s completely out of the ballpark when it comes to point-to-point applications, however. SES’s work with O3b Networks and its fleet of low orbiting satellites makes satellite a strong competitor to fibre. O3b’s focus on a specific geographical area and the fact that coverage can be easily moved or reconfigured as needs dictate makes it far more versatile than fibre. “Add to that the fact that some geographic regions and their harsh terrain just don’t lend themselves well to the rollout of fibre and it’s clear that low orbiting satellites have an important role to play,” he says. Sprague says the challenge for satellite operators is to keep costs as attractive as possible, while simultaneously replacing their assets often enough for reliability to be maintained. “It’s a balancing act,” he says.
Onwards and upwards
Sprague says that SES sees a bright future for satellite on the African continent and out of the six launches it has scheduled for this year, two will be dedicated to Africa. That will increase the number of satellites it has servicing Africa from seven to nine, on the backdrop of a current fleet that consists of 44 satellites in 30 orbital locations and will consist of 50 satellites by the end of this year . At the end of 2011, 18% of SES’s satellite fleet will be dedicated to servicing the African market. Outside of putting new satellite capacity in the sky , Sprague says that SES is increasing its focus on the ground too. It plans to add offices in East and South Central Africa to its office in South Africa over the course of the year. “In reality, Africa consists of 52 very interesting and different markets with varying demands and opportunities,” he says. “We are increasing our on-the-ground presence so it can understand these dynamics and stay close to our customers’ needs. We believe in understanding our target markets and that too many multinational companies have made the mistake of managing all of the countries within Africa in the same way. There’s a ton of opportunity for companies that are able to adapt to changing market conditions and assist their customers in their endeavors for growth. We’re aiming to be one the companies at the core of that phenomenon,” Sprague concludes.
Optical fibre has become the cornerstone of the telecommunications industry. From Corning's perspective, where do you see this industry going?
Many communities throughout the world, including Africa, are now connected by optical fibre, which transmits optical telecommunication signals at the speed of light. As individual homes are connected and as fibre reaches the desktop in office buildings, there is a bottleneck inside the home and within computing devices themselves. Current in-home networks will not cope with the ever increasing number of bandwidth hungry devices such as game consoles, HDTVs, IP phones, and other emerging devices. In the computer, the copper or aluminium interconnects that connect processing chips to one another, and the computer to peripheral devices, present a severe bottleneck. There will be a focus in the industry on developing next generation in-home networks and optical interconnects to replace the copper or aluminium. We also continue innovating new or enhanced optical fibre for submarine, terrestrial long-haul, and access networks to meet the insatiable bandwidth demand as the industry looks to 100 Gb/s transmission and beyond.
What makes Corning optical fibre different from fibre manufactured by other providers to the industry?
Corning fibre is synonymous with quality, which is critical for network reliability. Corning invented both processes used for manufacturing optical fibre today: the outside vapour deposition (OVD) and inside vapour deposition (IVD) processes. Corning uses the OVD process because of its ability to give the fibre superior geometrical consistency. Corning optical fibre quality has achieved recognition through the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award given to it by the United States Department of Commerce. The Baldrige award is the only formal recognition of the performance excellence of both public and private US organizations given by the United States government. The fact that Corning is the most widely deployed brand of optical fibre in the world is further testimony to the quality of Corning fibre. Corning terrestrial long-haul fibre has the lowest attenuation and PMD of any, which is critical for upgrades to higher data rates. Corning® LEAF®, a non-zero dispersion shifted fibre, has the highest effective area, making it possible to launch more power in the fibre and transmit many channels without encountering undesirable non-linear effects.
Corning is offering a bendable fibre solution that is revolutionary in its own right. Has Corning seen good demand for this kind of fibre, and where has most of this demand been seen?
Corning has observed strong demand for its bendable fibre product portfolio from operators deploying Fibre to the Home (FTTH) networks and new data centres throughout the world. This demand has been most prevalent in North America, Western Europe, and Japan. We are also starting to see demand growing in China and a few African countries where FTTH is being deployed in large estates and gated communities.
Corning offers several low-loss fibre products. Is this not generally the benefit of fibre over other solutions like copper? Or are there various levels of loss that are acceptable within the fibre industry?
In general, fibre has very low loss compared to copper. However, the loss of fibre varies significantly between fibre types and from one manufacturer to another. For example, the attenuation specification offered on standard single-mode fibre from different manufacturers has a range of 0.05 dB/km. This may look like a small number but it can translate to a 200 km difference in network link length that is possible before expensive regenerators are required; therefore, by selecting the lowest-loss fibre, operators can save on the overall cost of the network. Corning's low-loss fibre is critical for operators who will migrate to higher data rates (40 Gb/s or 100 Gb/s) over the 20 to 30-year lifetime of the network, without the need to install new fibre.
What current deployments in Africa are using Corning optical fibre? And what is the current market that Corning holds in Africa?
All submarine cables already deployed or being deployed in Africa use Corning fibre. Many terrestrial long-haul networks being deployed throughout the continent are also being built with Corning optical fibre. The more operators understand the impact of the quality of fibre on network longevity and overall cost of ownership the more they turn to Corning for their fibre supply. In the past, some operators chose the cheapest and lower-quality fibre and transmission equipment but after frequent network failures and the high costs associated with repairing networks, quality is becoming an important factor for them. Quality is critical – and for operators that embrace this knowledge, Corning becomes the preferred supplier.
Corning still offers copper solutions. Have you seen a massive shift of business from copper to fibre optics, and are you seeing any growth in the copper business at all?
Today, copper is mostly deployed in short-distance applications such as data centres and local area networks (LAN). As transmission speeds increase, the distance possible with copper is reduced significantly. For example, at 10GBase-T, copper twisted-pair cabling is capable of transmitting only up to 100m. Fibre will therefore continue to displace copper over time. The table below shows that fibre has overtaken copper in enterprise network applications and continues to gain.A number of African operators still have copper in their metropolitan networks, but when they make network upgrades they replace the copper with fibre.
Can you briefly describe the differences between the Corning Cable Systems and Corning Optical Fiber business units?
Corning Optical Fiber develops and manufactures optical fibre, the glass strands that are used to make fibre optic cable. Corning Optical Fiber supplies Corning Cable Systems and many other fibre optic cable makers throughout the world with optical fibre. Corning Cable Systems, on the other hand, uses fibre from Corning Optical Fiber to manufacture optical fibre cable that can be installed in a network by putting the necessary protecting materials around the fibre. Corning Cable Systems also manufactures passive optical equipment used in optical networks, such as connectors, splitters, closures and optical assemblies as well as hardware and equipment.
What are the main factors African operators should consider when selecting fibre for their telecommunication networks? Is it not enough for operators to specify cable based on International Telecommunication Union (ITU) standards?
It is important for operators to understand that while the cost of fibre constitutes a very small proportion of the network (2-6%), fibre is the most important. Once installed, networks should be able to be upgraded to higher data rates over the life of the network (20-30 years) by upgrading the electronics and not reinstalling new fibre. Some of the key attributes operators should pay attention to are loss (or attenuation), PMD, and chromatic dispersion. The ITU guidelines are a minimum requirement that every manufacturer should achieve. Operators specify fibre based on their network requirements, and in many cases specifications for key attributes are tighter than the ITU guidelines. Operators should have the capability to test incoming cable to verify the manufacturer’s test results.
Many operators in Africa experience a lot of cable cuts, leading to long down times and loss of revenue. What is Corning’s advice to these operators?
Our understanding is that most fibre cuts are a result of people stealing cable, believing it to be copper cable. The public has to be made aware that most cable being installed today is fibre and it has no value to them. Some operators have put signs along cable lines informing people that there is no copper in the cable. Even after the problem of cable stealing is eliminated, cables links can receive frequent cuts through ground excavation by mechanical digging vehicles. As a fibre manufacturer, our contribution is to offer low-loss optical fibre. Low-loss fibre can enable the operator to make more repairs on the fibre. The difference between a 100 km span of 0.18 dB/km attenuation fibre and 0.22 dB/km attenuation fibre, for example, is at least 10 additional repairs.