Unless you have been living in a cupboard for the last few years, you know that fibre is the next big thing. It’s super-fast, it’s stable, and it will rock your world. But, as with many new and exciting things, we’re so psyched about the possibilities and so caught up in the hype, we haven’t really sat down to figure out how all the components fit together. And we need to do this because, while fibre is fast, any network is only as fast as its slowest link.
So, yes, we’re all so excited about ‘getting fibre’ that we don’t even mind the disruption when someone comes along to dig up the road outside our houses, and our driveways become somewhat shaky wooden bridges for a few weeks. Because, once they’ve filled in the trench, pulled up the planks and replaced the driveway, we will all live happily ever after in super-fast-data-land.
It’s not quite that simple
As with many new technologies, we tend to get excited about the new part, forgetting that it is – in many ways – merely a development of an older one. Same with fibre. While the actual cable is new and exciting, it’s really just a network, and how the network is structured can be more important than what it’s made of. So we need to take into consideration how our local networks are connected to the larger networks – on a number of scales.
Who owns the cable networks?
One of the advantages (and one of the disadvantages) of fibre connectivity is that it has further taken the ownership of communications networks out of the hands of governments and state-owned enterprises, and put it into the hands of private corporations (some of which are partly owned by governments and state-owned enterprises, but don’t go there – that way lies madness).
But probably the most important thing to know is that ‘ownership’ is very, very complex. The undersea cables are owned by large corporations, governments, parastatals and/or a combination thereof. And, remember, when we discuss a cable, e.g. Seacom or SAFE, we are describing a route that is owned by a specific entity. But that route is not in isolation, so it will connect to another route that may or may not be owned by the same entity, or by a consortium of which some of the members are the same.
What this is, really, is a multi-layered, multi-level network owned by various for-profit entities, each one of which wants your business. So they employ smart salespeople and savvy PR folk.
Describing the global fibre infrastructure is a moving target because new cables are constantly being laid at quite a rapid rate, and older cables are being mothballed, but it is estimated that there are about 450 individual undersea cables in the world, with a total length of well over a million kilometres. There are – at present – five undersea cables linking South Africa to Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
• EASSy (Eastern African Submarine System) from Mtunzini up the east coast of Africa with a detour to Madagascar, then through the Red Sea to Sudan.
• WACS (West African Cable System) from Melkbosstrand to Portugal via the west coast of Africa.
• Seacom from Mtunzini up the east coast of Africa and the Red Sea to Egypt, and across to India.
• SAFE (Southern Africa–Far East) from Melkbosstrand to Mtunzini and then out into the Indian Ocean to Mauritius and Réunion, India and Malaysia.
• SAT3 from Melkbosstrand to Portugal along the west coast of Africa. Until Seacom went live in 2009, this was the only undersea connection South Africa had with the rest of the world, which meant that, if the cable was damaged, we were pretty much cut off until it had been fixed.
There are, at present, no direct links from South Africa across the Atlantic, but that is changing. Planned and almost completed trans-Atlantic routes include:
• SACS (South Atlantic Cable System) from Sanjango in Angola to
Fortaleza in Brazil. The cable has been laid, but it is not yet active.
• SABR, which will run from Cape Town to Recife in Brazil and also
link up St Helena and Ascension, is in the planning stages.
Both of these will connect seamlessly with the USA via one or more of the many cables linking South and North America.
From the two main hubs – Mtunzini and Melkbosstrand – long- distance backhaul cables connect all the major cities, usually closely following the national roads. At present these are installed, owned and operated by a few big players, such as Dark Fibre Africa (DFA), Telkom, Liquid and FibreCo. These, in turn, lease fibre capacity to a number of operators, such as the mobile operators, e.g. MTN, and major ISP providers like MWeb, Vox and/or Vumatel.
These terminate in aggregation POPs (point of presence), which are usually – but not in every case – open access. Larger cities have multiple POPs while smaller ones and some isolated towns may have only one. There are a number of players that connect the POPs to each other – both within and between cities – thereby forming a core backbone network.
Some ISPs would procure the various elements of the network separately, and manage each of them, while others buy bundled services from a POP on the network of a larger upstream wholesale provider. These service providers then build networks connecting the POPs with smaller aggregation nodes, which in turn will be connected in a pattern that actually does resemble a spider web. And the last mile that gets the magic of fibre to your home will be connected to one of the aggregation nodes or the fibres connecting them.
As an estate, your options depend on how close you are to existing networks, so – in future editions – we will unpack the options available for the last mile.