BRICS To Cable The Southern Hemisphere

A 34,000 km submarine cable network linking five developing countries? Easy, says Andrew Mthembu of i3Africa

Yesterday, the BRICS Cable initiative announced a 34,000 km long submarine fibre optic cable system that will connect the developing economies of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the US.

TechWeekEurope sat down with Andrew Mthembu, chairman of i3Africa and Imphandze Investments, responsible for South African section of the cable, to talk about this project, which aims to provide bandwidth around the Southern Hemisphere of the globe, to balance the current provision of cables amongst Northern Hemisphere nations, and ensure that developing nations’ communications are not all in the hands of the nations of the North.

Andrew is a well-known personality in the ICT sector both in Africa and internationally. He holds a number of directorships in the ICT and tourism industries, and is a past ICT advisor to the Minister of Public Enterprises in South Africa. Andrew was instrumental in the conceptualisation and rollout of the West African Cable System (WACS). It is this latter experience which has led him and his associates to promote the BRICS Cable System.

Developing nations want cyber security

What are the BRICS countries trying to achieve with this project?
Every BRICS country has certain strengths: Brazil is strong on renewable energy sources, like manufacturing ethanol from sugar. India is the strongest in terms of software development.China has positioned itself as the force to be reckoned with in the financial sector. The development in these fields requires being connected to the Internet.

Most of these countries are still communicating through the northern hemisphere, even between themselves. It’s not great from both a cost perspective and a security perspective. During the discussion we had in India last year, it became quite clear that it makes sense to look at the project that could link these countries directly.

You mentioned the security aspect. How serious is the security consideration?
When we presented this project in India at the end of March, one of the things that were put on the table was cybersecurity. All industries are concerned about information security, especially the financial sector. The least number of cable interconnections there are between countries, the better. At the moment, if I am in India and I want to connect to Brazil, I have to go through two or three cables owned by various entities. I can hardly think that my communication security is guaranteed.

What about the cost of the project? You don’t seem to publicise it much.
We do have a feel for how much it would be – anywhere between $1 billion and $1.6 billion. It’s quite a wide range. The reason for that is simple: once we start to engage with the operators, they will have different needs. Some of them might look for a branch to another country where they have interests. That could increase the cost of the project.

Has there been a lot of interest from the investors so far?
As part of the feasibility studies, we had to travel and talk to operators, see where they stand and what their projections for traffic are.

We are obviously considering operators from BRICS countries first. We have spoken to Telebras and Oi in Brazil, most of the operators in South Africa, Bharti and Tata in India, China Telecom and China Mobile, Intercom in Russia, France Telecom in Mauritius. They are all interested.

Cabling the Southern Hemisphere

What about the deadline? Are you confident the project will be finished fairly soon, by 2014?
We have based the deadline on Alcatel’s previous experience with submarine networks. We have also based it on our own experience with the West African Cable System (WACS), which is currently getting ready for service. It is 13,000 km, and going through 12 countries. These countries have different levels of readiness, from regulation and development perspective. It made the project very difficult. But even with these difficulties, we managed to complete it in record time.

Usually, the longest and most critical part in a project like this is to get all the operators singing from the same hymn sheet, to agree to the rules of engagement. With WACS, we did it in three months. With BRICS Cable, we have given ourselves six months. We are looking for 11 or 12 operators. Because of the experience we had, we think it will be slightly easier than last time. After all, it’s just seven countries, if you include Mauritius and Singapore. In terms of telecom development, they are much better than some of the countries we had to deal with in the past.

24 months for finalisation of the design, the route, manufacturing and laying of the cable? Easily doable. Even if it’s 34000 km long.

How serious is the commitment of the governments? Are all of them ready to go the distance?
From the start, we insisted that the project must be able to stand on its own from commercial point of view, without support from any government. So if an investor comes on board, they will see the return. The politics is secondary. The project is not financed by the government; it is operators who are going to finance the BRICS Cable.

Is every country responsible for its section of the cable?
That’s what normally happens. Each country will have a local operator responsible for a length of the cable. Having said that, there is usually one headquarters for operations and maintenance, which looks after the full length of the cable. We want to try and establish that headquarters in South Africa.

What is the next step for BRICS Cable?
This is only the beginning. The real work starts when you want to put together construction and management agreements, set up different committees. That is where you usually get a bit of a dance, with everyone trying to position themselves in the lead. I hope the six months we set aside for this process is adequate.

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