Just over 12 months ago, WIOCC began delivering capacity on EASSy (East African Submarine System) when it went live. One year on, Adrian Linden, editor of Connected talks to WIOCC’s CEO, Chris Wood, about the changes that have affected wholesale and African telecommunications markets.
Adrian Linden: It’s been a hectic year for you and your team. What are the major changes that have taken place in the market since the EASSy network became operational?
Chris Wood: EASSy wasn’t the first fibre-optic cable system on Africa’s east coast, but in many African countries – particularly landlocked ones such as Zimbabwe and Burundi – the arrival of our network has, for the first time, enabled access to reliable and affordable internet connection. Over the last year the unit cost of bandwidth has dropped by between 50 and 60 per cent, which has had a major impact on both businesses and the way people live their lives. Business communications have evolved beyond recognition, bringing dramatic improvements in business efficiency. It’s hard to believe now, but receiving emails with attachments used to be a real problem in Africa and online booking and payment systems didn’t exist a couple of years ago. Local networks just couldn’t support the data demands of these services. Another key change has been the mass uptake of smart-phones in many parts of the African continent – one of the key drivers for the huge growth in bandwidth usage. As a result, growing numbers of Africans can now access social networks and other multimedia applications – with Skype and Facebook particularly popular. Africa is also now widely recognised as a global innovator in mobile applications such as e-banking and e-health.
AL: What about the impact on the international market?
CW: The arrival of EASSy has certainly accelerated the decision making of many national carriers in Africa, leading to significant investment in developing, extending and enhancing core backbone infrastructure. This has markedly improved connectivity into many parts of Africa. WIOCC’s 14 shareholders are all African telcos – tier 1 and tier 2 players in their respective markets. Together with WIOCC’s partner networks, they give us access to over 50,000km of terrestrial fibre-optic network in Africa, interconnecting 20 countries across the continent. In addition to this, our core network – comprising the EASSy system, together with the new EIG and WACS cables in which we have also made strategic investments – includes around 40,000km of submarine fibre-optic cable. For international carriers, this means we are able to offer a seamless, one-stop-shop service into many parts of Africa. Our carrier customers no longer need to work through multiple suppliers to connect customer locations across the continent – they can just come to WIOCC. This firmly positions us as the strongest partner for delivering African connectivity – Africa’s carriers’ carrier. We only sell capacity to carriers, so we really understand their needs and challenges.
AL: And what are their main issues?
CW: Diversity, reliability and ease of doing business. When we entered the market our aim was to offer carriers almost infinitely flexible commercial terms. To achieve this, we turned the traditional purchasing structure on its head to offer real choice of contract type, duration and terms. We have even developed a ‘pay as you use’ option, enabling carriers to secure the most cost-effective connectivity as their capacity requirements grow.
AL: You mentioned your shareholders – in addition to the terrestrial network reach, what other benefits does this structure give you as an organisation?
CW: Our structure gives us huge benefits. It provides us with a very strong financial base for a start – historically, the consortium approach has proven to be the most financially stable approach to building and operating a cable system. Regular, high-level contact between our shareholders in the various countries gives us a strong sense of solidarity and capability. In Africa, things can take time unless you know the right people to talk to AND how to get hold of them. This regular shareholder contact can be extremely useful for us, and for our customers, as it helps us get any issues or challenges resolved swiftly. Our shareholders also benefit by being able to share best practice. For example, shareholder Zantel recently set up a franchise for internet cafés in Tanzania, delivering I.T. skills training and enabling rural schools to provide pupils with Internet access. Other shareholders have been able to monitor its operation in Tanzania and are now exploring the model for their own markets.
AL: What’s next for WIOCC?
CW: Well, more capacity for one thing. Business and residential demand for internet-based services is growing at such a pace that we are substantially increasing the lit capacity on EASSy from the beginning of 2012. Over the past year we have also seen the system’s design capacity grow from 1.4Tbps to 4.72Tbps with the upgrade from 10Gbps to 40Gbps wavelengths. I am confident that technological advances over the next couple of years will allow us to implement 100Gbps wavelengths on the system – further increasing the ultimate design capacity of the system.
AL: Are you expanding your reach further into Africa?
CW: As I mentioned, one of our key differentiators is our policy of strategic alliances and investments in other cable systems. This is a strategy we are continuing to pursue as it enables us to meet the full range of carrier’s capacity requirements. We have just finalised a multi-million dollar investment in two new high-capacity submarine cable systems, WACS and EIG, serving the West African coast and providing connectivity to Europe respectively. This investment reinforces WIOCC’s ability to offer carriers high levels of redundancy and to deliver the promise of reliable, affordable, high-speed connectivity all around Africa. For our carrier customers, this means winning more business from customers who expect and demand affordable and reliable, high-speed connectivity whenever and wherever they are in Africa.