The new West African Cable System (WACS) and Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine broadband cables linking 19 West African countries with Europe are set to change the face of business and leisure for the region. Welcome to the new, faster, online West Africa.
Words Edward Shepherd
Using the internet in some parts of West Africa should carry a health warning: “Can result in high blood pressure, clenched teeth and tantrums”. Browsing anything more complex than simple text-based websites in The Gambia, for example, can be enormously frustrating. I have lost count of the number of times I have had to resist the urge to scream, having been driven to fury by failed uploads and endless buffering.
It’s not just hacks with anger management issues that are affected. Many businesses and ordinary users across the sub-region are at the mercy of connectivity which suffers from high latency, high cost and narrow bandwidth. But all this is changing thanks to two very long, very thin lengths of cable lying on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.
Between them, the $650m Alcatel-Lucent West African Cable System (WACS) and the France Telecom-led $700m Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine broadband cables will link Europe with 19 countries along the west coast of Africa (as well as two island countries) using high-speed fibre-optic technology.
WACS was launched in May this year, and ACE is due to come online in December 2012. They are not the first such cables to link with West Africa, but they herald a step-change in broadband capacity for the sub-region, and are set to have an enormous impact on those countries which do not already have a direct link.
Each cable has a maximum capacity of 5.12 terabits per second (Tb/s) which will be divided among the consortium of operators in the participating countries. For those who don’t know their terabits from their terabytes, a total of 10.24 Tb/s bandwidth would allow up to around 40 million ordinary videos (and up to 10 million HD videos) to be streamed simultaneously without significant buffering. YouTube won’t know what hit it.
This is welcome news to local businesses, as well as kids who want to watch the latest music videos online. Papa Njie, the gregarious CEO of Unique Solutions, an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) company based in The Gambia, is hugely excited about the prospect of ACE coming to his country. He spotted its potential early on and was closely involved in setting up the special purpose vehicle that has enabled ACE’s arrival in The Gambia. Words tumble out of him, hardly keeping up with his bubbling enthusiasm.
“The bringing of these submarine cables to our part of the world is a game-changer in changing economies,” he says. “We are of the opinion that [ACE] has tremendous potential to change things in the country.”
The potential for broadband to drive economic growth is promoted by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, a lobby group formed in 2010 by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and UNESCO. Its 2011 report, Broadband: A Platform for Progress, cites over 100 different studies which make reference to the economic impact of broadband. One of these, a 2009 report by the World Bank, concludes that a 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration in developing countries contributed 1.38 per cent to economic growth over the study period.
Papa Njie is convinced. “Countries which have higher broadband prioritisations, GDP shoots through the roof!” he says. The power of broadband to drive growth is also advocated by Eric Osiakwan, Director Of Internet Research, an ICT company based in Accra. Ghana has already benefited from being directly connected to the Main One and GLO-1 submarine cables within the last two years, so he has witnessed some of the effects this infrastructure can have.
“The impacts are both on the user side and the industry side,” he says. “On the industry side, we’re seeing a reduction in prices [driven by increased competition], we’re seeing ISPs [Internet Service Providers] providing more bandwidth and hopefully making more money. And then we’re also seeing growth in ICT businesses, in app development companies [for example]. On the user side, we’re seeing more and more people going online.”
According to Eric, improved bandwidth capacity can be a driver for entrepreneurship, as more young people use the internet to access key information. He says: “We’re seeing more young people develop more apps and more creative web-based businesses. This is because they are online and they are able to participate in the process that results in software development…They can acquire the skills and they can get to an environment which allows them to be creative.”
Papa Njie is a keen advocate of the power of broadband to bring about social change, and it is this improved access to knowledge which he says will deliver it:
“The social impact of a submarine cable should not be underestimated,” he says. “What good broadband does is bring education without borders…Social change will come through education. Our young people will have access to the best learning materials across the world.”
There is an almost evangelical belief in the transformative power of broadband among ICT advocates in the sub-region, and it is hard not to be swept along by their enthusiasm. However, there is still much work to be done. Although increasing numbers of users are accessing the internet and taking advantage of increased capacity, ITU data indicates that internet-user penetration in sub-Saharan Africa was 10.6 per cent in 2010, well behind the then global average of about 30 per cent.
For real change to be possible, the internet needs to become more accessible to more people. Although the coastal areas will benefit almost immediately, more infrastructure needs to be built inland in some countries so rural areas can reap the benefits, and end-user costs need to come down further to reduce the barriers to access.
Charles Kenny, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, also urges caution. He says that more, cheaper bandwidth is indeed “one element of creating a better environment for businesses to flourish and services to be delivered”, but is also skeptical of the claims of economic transformation made by the likes of the Broadband Commission as he says they are based on “very weak evidence”. However, thanks to the ACE and WACS cables, the routes to the kind of economic and social-development outcomes advocated by West Africa’s ICT entrepreneurs will at least be open. It may not happen overnight, but there is little doubt that more bandwidth has the potential to deliver great changes to the sub-region.