New subsea cable to bring more connectivity to Africa

Apr 11, 2016, 2:46 PM EDT
Ethernet cable. (Source: reynermedia/flickr)
Ethernet cable. (Source: reynermedia/flickr)

With flashier, more mysterious technologies such as cloud computing or virtual reality at the forefront of the tech world these days, it’s easy to forget that the global framework for internet is still largely powered by physical cables. Those cables lie under the world’s oceans in a gigantic network that is time-consuming and expensive to establish and maintain. The latest of these endeavors is a critical subsea cable that will connect Africa and South America in a $160 million project that will be operational some time in 2018.

The success of undersea cables — particularly ones that connect the internet — is of global concern, not just of importance to the physically connected continents. Indeed, Japanese banks are funding this venture: the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) are partially co-funding through the Development Bank of Angola. The telco Angola Cables S.A. and Japan’s NEC Corp said that this is the first subsea fiber optic cable system to connect the two continents, according to Reuters.

The South Atlantic Cable System will span more than 6,200 kilometers across the South Atlantic ocean, extending from Angola’s shores, and will connect to Fortaleza, Brazil. The SACS also has the option to extend connection to another cable system that travels up to Miami, Florida. That extension would be the first connecting Africa directly to the U.S.

Africa has had a particularly tough time establishing and maintaining undersea cable systems, just as it has had trouble establishing in-ground cables on land. Copper is still valuable, and traditionally web cables have copper components, so cable theft is of no small concern. 

The process by which undersea cables are laid is also laborious and investment-heavy; cable projects must avoid coral reefs, manmade debris such as sunken ships, and other protected marine habitats.

These obstacles are a couple of reasons why Africa has historically been less connected to the web than the rest of the world. While sending data into the cloud is the trendier concept, it’s important to keep in mind that no cloud exists without some cables somewhere to back it up, just as ethereal balloon-driven initiatives such as Google’s Project Loon have to connect to telcos on the ground at some point to actually deliver the internet to users. Part of the reason companies like Google have explored alternative web-connection projects such as Project Loon is because physical infrastructure attempts have failed repeatedly on the continent. As time passes and web connectivity advances, Africa has the opportunity to bypass legacy infrastructure of old to get onto the web. But there is technically no replacement for the massive undersea cable system that transmits the majority of the world’s data.