African Tech Voices: West Africa Cable System – Africa’s internet backbone
The West Africa Cables System or WACS has been the primary artery for Africa’s digital connectivity over the past decade. Completed in 2012, the 14 530 km long subsea cable connects Africa to the UK and links to 14 countries between Yzerfontein, South Africa and the UK. Over this time, it has been the primary international internet backbone between the African continent and the rest of the world.
The West Africa Cables System or WACS has been the primary artery for Africa’s digital connectivity over the past decade.
WACS is owned and managed by an 18-member consortium made up of international and African carriers and provides services from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe across more than a dozen countries, with 12 landing points in Africa and three in Europe (Canary Islands, Portugal and the UK).
For internet traffic to travel between Africa and the Americas (the largest centre for the production and aggregation of digital content and services) over WACS, most data traffic had to transit via Europe first.
With the introduction of the South Atlantic Cables System (SACS), which came into operation in mid-2018, an express highway for data traffic between Africa and the Americas became available providing direct routing and low latency to complement the services offered by the WACS cable. SACS also provides for a valuable redundancy link to WACS.
When failures occurred on WACS in January and March 2020, SACS played a major role in providing a redundancy option for the many users who were impacted by the traffic outages on WACS.
Subsea Cables are the backbone of international connectivity
Notwithstanding such occurrences, WACS continues to play a pivotal role for many businesses, enterprises and academic institutions up and down the West Coast of Africa.
Many might believe that the demand for capacity will wane as new cables reach Africa, but this is not necessarily the case as another 8 Tbps of capacity will be added by Q2 2023.
WACS is one of few open access systems on the continent that connects to very well-established backhaul networks at the respective landing points to support end-to-end customer services.
One needs to bear in mind that the demand for data and connectivity on the African continent is growing at an exponential rate. Current estimates indicate that demand for capacity is increasing by more than 40% each year as more and more businesses and users in sub-Saharan Africa consume more content and require more capacity for international connectivity services.
Undersea cables are the drivers of Africa’s economic growth
In Africa, many countries are landlocked and are dependent on international cables to provide international connectivity and peering.
Cables such as WACS and SACS are playing an instrumental role in connecting Africa to the global digital economy and promoting international commerce and development. The well-established backhaul connections to these cables via cable landing stations are critical for datacentres to expand connectivity and to bring content closer to customers - at reduced cost and latencies.
WACS was originally deployed with 10G technology and had an initial design capacity of 5.12 Tbps. To respond to the growing demand for bandwidth and increasing reliance on the internet, WACS was upgraded to 100G, with additional design capacity to 14.5 Tbps in 2018. With the deployment of the state-of-the art technology, WACS capacity will exceed 22 Tbps in Q2 2023. The added capacity will improve performance and reliability across the network - enhancing international communications between Africa and Europe and the rest of world.
Will introduction of new cables make cables such as WACS redundant?
Companies like Meta, Microsoft, and Netflix have millions of users who are using increasing amounts of data who are driving up the demand for data every day with a growing number of users from Africa looking to access data, online gaming, streamed content, 5G and other connected services. As a result, a few of the major companies have announced plans to build and introduce new cables to the African continent.
These new builds include Google’s Equiano Cable which is expected to come onstream at the end of 2022; the Peace Cable which will connect Africa to Europe and Asia and Facebook will complete the longest cable build yet, the 2Africa Cable that will span almost 4500km and connect 23 countries across Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
This is very good news for people living in Africa as it will improve overall access to internet and connected services and will help to advance education, healthcare and social development on a number of levels.
At current estimates, Africa’s population is around 1.37 billion only an estimated 503 million people are connected to the internet.
The low level of internet penetration - when compared to other parts of the developing world, is however, an obstacle to the economic growth and prosperity of the continent. The ongoing operation of WACS and the arrival of new cables, comes at an important time in the economic evolution of the continent.
What will be vital is to ensure that investors, carriers, mobile network providers, hyperscalers and other service providers look at forming and cementing partnerships to connect existing infrastructure to new infrastructure that will usher in solutions and services specifically tailored to meet the needs of businesses and enterprises across Africa.
WACS is indeed alive and well and will continue to provide dependable and secure connectivity to the many businesses and enterprises capitalising on the benefits of a digitally connected world.