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Wednesday, June 23, 1999 Published at 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK


Circle of light is Africa's Net gain

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Africa will soon be surrounded by a ring of laser light, as a new undersea, fibre-optic cable is constructed. The cable will transform high-speed communications with the continent.

Experts have said that it will plug Africa into the high-speed Internet world and could herald an African renaissance.

The optic-fibre cable is long enough to circle the Earth and will be laid by robotic submarines. The project will cost $1.6 billion and aims to be completed in 2002.

Link to the wired world

"The system will fully integrate the African continent into the global broadband telecommunications network," says Steve Fassoulis, chairman of the Africa One consortium.

[ image: The advanced optical-fibre cable being tested at Lucent Technologies laboratory]
The advanced optical-fibre cable being tested at Lucent Technologies laboratory
The optic cable will be state-of-the-art, able to carry up to 40 gigabits of data per second. It will also be self-healing, able to repair itself if it is damaged.

It will have two dozen "landing points", where the cable comes ashore. Countries with no coastline will be connected to it by terrestrial optical fibre, microwave or satellite links.

The data cable will provide Africa with a telecommunications "backbone" that will connect the most isolated continent to the rest of the world.

Billion dollar savings

"The telecommunications sector in Africa is developing rapidly," says Fassoulis, "Deregulation, privatisation and competition throughout Africa are creating a robust demand for new services, especially the Internet."

The Africa One network is expected to save countries hundreds of millions of dollars a year in communication costs.

According to Joseph Ceva, president of Africa One, the system will boost trade and investment in Africa.

The optical fibre will be built by Lucent Technologies of the US and Global Crossing Ltd will lay it on the sea floor.

Continental co-operation

The concept of circling Africa with a fibre optic cable was first proposed in 1993 at a meeting of African telecommunications ministers. Thirty African countries are now a part of the project.

Experts believe that Africa cannot afford to be without a high capacity communications connection to the rest of the world. Currently only South Africa is well connected.

World-wide voice traffic is increasing at 13 per cent a year, but data traffic is increasing at an even faster rate. Over the past five years, Internet traffic has increased by 86 per cent a year.

Optical fibre is the most efficient way of relaying data, so the laying of optical cable has increased dramatically. In 1997, there was 30 million kilometres of optic-fibre cable world-wide. By the end of 2001 it is expected to be 45 million km.

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