• Well connected

    Growing connectivity successfully on the continent is about having a vision and a network that is truly pan-African, says Chris Wood, CEO of WIOCC.

    Well connected

    In the past decade, the arrival of multiple fibre-optic submarine cables and the terrestrial networks to support and feed them has completely changed the prospects for Africa’s growth and development. It has connected the continent in a manner that for many was almost inconceivable. Indisputably, connectivity is one of the most valuable, crucial enablers of economic growth, and a huge component of the realisation of African peoples’ personal aspirations.

    To have had that vision back in 2008 tells the story of WIOCC, a firm that saw the potential in ‘carrying’ connectivity into and out of the continent – initially based on its 30% ownership of the EASSy (East Africa Submarine Cable System) cable on the east coast, then supplemented by subsequent investments into WACS (West Africa Cable System), EIG (Europe India Gateway) and key terrestrial network assets.

    A single company backed by 14 shareholders – largely the national telecoms operators of various African nations – this combination has created one of the biggest connectivity footprints on the continent, with more than 55 000 km of terrestrial network seamlessly linked to in excess of 40 000 km of submarine capacity.

    Chris Wood, CEO of WIOCC, says that just about every African country is now connected, with Eritrea remaining as one of the final frontiers.

    ‘Eritrea’s investment and positioning makes it a challenge. However, addressing such challenges is what differentiates us from our competitors. We try to get to the hard-to-reach places, as we did in the DRC, Somalia and Zambia, designing and delivering the most appropriate connectivity solutions.

    ‘Not many organisations can do what we do and as effectively as us. In some cases, it may require having 10 to 12 suppliers in our network just to deliver a single customer circuit, but we meet all challenges through our focus on being the solution provider best able to deliver a single, one-stop service.’

    The magic lies in WIOCC having a resilient core network that provides enough capacity to connect the entire continent with the rest of the world through not just its investments in cabling and its shareholder base, but also the implementation of an IP network with PoPs (point of purchase).

    ‘We have 20 locations across the continent housing our nodes, linked through our shareholder and partner networks, to create 55 000 km of connectivity between major cities,’ says Wood.

    ‘It’s an extremely deep network and gives WIOCC considerable diversity and the ability to offer the benefits of that to its customers. For example, customers from Johannesburg connecting to our IP network can have their traffic routed either west or east.

    ‘If there is a network issue on one side of the continent, we can simply move their traffic to whichever is the healthiest connection at any given time.’

    ‘We’ve invested over US$200 million in submarine and terrestrial fibre over the past seven years, and we continue to invest heavily in our core network’

    This all translates into a higher quality of service, connectivity and speed. Although Africa is rapidly acquiring sufficient bandwidth for its needs, with some 500 000 km to 600 000 km of terrestrial cable now laid, only 3% is currently being used.

    ‘The only real hindrance left is the local fibre roll-out and local access,’ says Wood. ‘Once addressed, this will dramatically change the lives of even greater numbers of Africans by making bandwidth more affordable in more places.

    ‘When you look at the cost structure of an individual’s connectivity between their home and the network, 80% of that is in the local network, and only 10% is in the international link.

    ‘Investment in new wireless technologies helps bring more capacity into the local loop but, ideally, we need to ensure that, as in Seoul, homes are getting at least 100 Mbps to ensure the highest quality and calibre of connection.’

    Connecting the continent is a very capital-intensive operation, requiring many companies to invest in fibre and networks. This is further hindered by Africa’s core lack of grid power.

    ‘We understand that there are huge problems dealing with the increase in power requirements from the telecoms industry. Data centres, for instance, draw massive amounts from the grid. So unless the infrastructure exists and is stable, you can’t bring this type of product to the market. And, of course, in conflict zones there are further complications,’ says Wood. ‘However, these are the types of problems that we solve in Somalia, for instance, by running our landing stations purely on generators.

    ‘Although this is not a long-term solution in a place as progressive as Somalia, we have successfully promoted rapid change by introducing cost-effective, high-capacity international connectivity to the country.

    ‘Small businesses are opening up, powered by the increase in access to information, and there is no doubt that it has contributed to stabilising the country. It’s never going to be easy in conflict areas, and this again testifies to our resilience and persistence in finding solutions.

    ‘In some respects, our efforts in Somalia were pretty much a military operation, with the UN involved and troops on the ground to protect against piracy and any interruption of the cable-laying activities.

    ‘While not as tough, in Lesotho we are also working very actively to open up the market by investing in an internet exchange. This will dramatically affect the timing of service introduction and improve the quality of the internet.

    ‘When you are working at ground level, all people really want is to just get on with their jobs. So although you may need to pull your people out from time to time for their protection, eventually when things are settled, you achieve your goals.’

    ‘We meet all challenges through our focus on being the solution provider best able to deliver a single, one-stop service’

    Wood explains that nothing is on the horizon currently that will replace fibre as the main core network-delivery system.

    ‘Although recent satellites can provide quite high capacity, it is still only a tiny percentage of the capacity you can get through fibre.

    ‘With the submarine side very well covered, satellites are really just filling in the connectivity gaps in areas that are hard to reach because of the lack of infrastructure. However, they can never match the bandwidth capacity or scalability we see in submarine cables, and they are not as cost-effective in the vast majority of circumstances.’

    Being flexible in finding creative solutions is something that WIOCC has built a reputation on. Its core management team is still the same as it was when the business started, together with a grand total of 77 years of experience. What has changed is that the staff complement has more than doubled from 25 to almost 60 as a result of growth in WIOCC’s customer base, and to take care of technical support, sales and technological upgrades.

    Since inception, WIOCC has shown strong revenue and profit growth – averaging some 30%. According to Wood, its net profit has doubled too.

    ‘Although hard to assess empirically, it’s clear that we are certainly one of the leading wholesale providers in Africa. We’ve invested over US$200 million in submarine and terrestrial fibre over the past seven years, and we continue to invest heavily in our core network so that we remain truly carrier-scale and capable of supporting almost any conceivable capacity requirement.

    ‘Our shareholder relationships are strong, based as they are on close interworking to ensure we have a standard set of products that consistently provide the same level of service and agreements across the continent.

    ‘Regular meetings among us ensure that we, and they, understand the broader impact of connectivity, and in so doing, we are effectively promoting pan-Africanism, given that we also deliver a great deal of cross-border connectivity,’ he says.

    Another aspect of the business that remains unchanged is the vision. Wood says that WIOCC is still focused on becoming the leading wholesale carrier on the continent, helping other carriers to connect.

    ‘We always said that we wanted to make an enduring contribution to the development of African telecoms. I think we’re achieving that and we continue to transform African businesses and its economies.’

    By Kerry Dimmer
    Image: Jon Pilch/Macpherson Photographers