WACS to provide increased international connectivity

April 26th, 2011, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

by Hans van de Groenendaal, EngineerIT

The West African Cable System (WACS) landed at Yzerfontein, a small village on the Cape West coast on 19 April 2011, thereby doubling Africa’s broadband capacity.

The WACS design of four fibre pairs and 128 wavelength technologies make it the largest cable system ever to land in sub-Sahara Africa. It will be capable of carrying the equivalent traffic of Seacom, EASSy and SAT-3/WASC/SAFE cable systems combined.

“WACS will meet the demand for capacity well into the first quarter of the 21st century,” said Dr. Angus Hay of Neotel, co-chairman of the WACS management committee, as a small tugboat hauled the cable to shore. For the residents of Yzerfontein this was a historic occasion with many crowding the beach front. Buried safely in a steel pipe deep under the sand, no-one would guess that a submarine cable had landed on this beach, from where it will route to the landing station being built on the outskirts of the village.

The cable comes ashore. As the cable leaves the ship, red buoys are fastened to keep the cable afloat. The buoys are later removed and the cable is buried in a protective cover under the seabed surface.


One of the frequently asked questions is “Why Yzerfontein?” Why not Melkbosstrand? Various reasons led to the choice of Yzerfontein as the landing point for WACS. Until now all sub-marine cables that enter South Africa are located at either Melkbosstrand or Mtunzini, thus SA has two international sub-marine gateways. Events such as earthquakes or even a large ship dragging its anchor has seen several cables being cut during singular events across the world. South Africa needs a third international sub-marine cable gateway to reduce the risk of complete isolation from the rest of the world.


The 14 000 km long fibre optic sub-marine cable system will raise South Africa’s current broadband capacity by over 500 Gbps. Spanning the west coast of Africa and terminating in the United Kingdom, WACS will enable seamless connectivity into the rest of Europe and America.

Dr. Angus Hay of Neotel, co-chairman of the WACS Management Committee: “WACS will meet the demand for capacity well into the first quarter of the 21st century.”

Manufactured and installed by Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Cable Networks (ASN), the four-fibre pair system has been under construction since 2009. The total project cost is estimated at $650-million. An initiative by the WACS consortium, with South African members Broadband Infraco, MTN, Telkom, Neotel and Vodacom, the cable has 15 established terminal stations along its route and will function to reduce the cost of connecting the west coast of Africa into the high-speed global telecommunications network.

WACS makes use of dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) technology, which enables bi-directional communications over one strand of fibre, as well as the multiplication of capacity. The initial capacity of WACS is over 500 Gbps and is upgradable at any stage of the project.

The project manager, Gary Waterworth of Alcatel-Lucent Sub-marine Cable Networks said that historically sub-marine cables have included redundancy with the duplication of sensitive components. This concept is extended to the landing stations. A number of new ideas have been included in WACS which makes it the world’s most advanced submarine cable system. The total cable length between SA and Portugal is some 9000 km, which would require the voltage powering the system to be well over the 12 000 to 14 000 V limit in the order of some 24 000 V DC.

Telkom’s Johan Meyer: “South Africa needs a third international submarine cable gateway to reduce the risk of complete isolation from the rest of the world and Yzerfontein was the best choice.”

WACS is powered by two separate independent rings from Europe to West Africa and West Africa to South Africa, thus reducing the power requirements to around 12 000 V DC. The two rings are linked with a short length of cable with no repeaters, which decreases the risk of failure.

“Power feeds over 14 000 V would cause flash over in the cable to ground. Power is fed over a single conductor with the seabed (earth) as a return. This means that at the landing stations a lot of attention is given to the earthing system”, said Waterworth.

The flashover problem could be overcome by changing the insulation material between the copper tube carrying the power and the outer steel protection sheath. It would also mean that the power system would be of a completely different design, introducing a number of other possible
failure scenarios.

Another interesting innovation is the branching units. Should a branch fail, the main trunk will still operate, which also means that repairing a branch will not affect the traffic on the main cable.

“One of the other features of WACS is the arrangements of the four fibre pairs. One fibre pair is a direct route from South Africa to Europe, an express lane. Then there is the semi-express fibre which has two hops, from Europe to Western Africa and Western Africa to Europe. The third pair is also semi express which has three stops and the fourth pair is an omnibus fibre that stops off at all landing ports en route. Another feature is a wavelength pass through a terminal. This means a wavelength coming into a West African landing station does not just stop there but carries on. This feature allows future upgrades to be carried out without the necessity to have to upgrade each landing point”, said Waterworth.

At a media briefing the South African members of the WACS consortium gave a brief overview of how they view the significance of the joint project.

Dr. Andrew Shaw, interim CEO of Broadband Infraco said that the African continent still yearns for affordable higher speed connectivity. “Meeting the needs for increased capacity along the cable route, this network will enable the landing countries to be served by a system offering significant capacity and lowering the cost of broadband in support of economic growth and innovative applications such as e-education and e-health that can positively impact peoples’ lives”.

“We’ve made great strides expanding the Vodacom network over the past year, adding around 1000 new 3G base stations and rolling out fibre transmission to base stations and the core network. This significantly increased network capacity and positions us to provide our customers with superior data connectivity. However, it is rather pointless to have a great national data network without decent international connectivity and bandwidth, which is why we are so excited about WACS,” says Andries Delport, CTO, Vodacom Group.


WACS consortium

The WACS consortium members consist of Angola Cables, Broadband Infraco; Cable&Wireless Worldwide; Congo Telecom.; MTN; Société Congolaise des Postes et Télécommunications (SCPT); PT ComuniÇÕes; Togo Telecom; Tata Communications, Telecom Namibia; Telkom SA; and Vodacom Group.

All members of the consortium signed the construction and maintenance agreement and supply contract on 8 April 2009. The supply contract came in force on 25 May 2009 soon after which Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Cable Networks began work on the cable system.  

Karel Pienaar, MD MTN said “Africa has until now been a cyclist on the information superhighway. MTN’s investment in WACS will ensure that millions of our subscribers in South Africa and across the continent have the capacity and the ability to optimally utilise the data and telemetry offerings that modern telephony applications provide. We sincerely believe that the commercialisation of WACS and other submarine cables will set the stage for a mobile revolution that will enhance the quality of life for millions of people across the continent.”

Johan Meyer, Telkom Global Capacity executive said that WACS will serve South Africa’s telecommunications needs for the next decade. “While the current recently upgraded SAT 3 cable is not fully utilised, it must be noted that a submarine cable project takes several years to plan and build so by the time WACS goes into service next year, we will be in time to meet the demands. It is interesting that there has been a ten year period between the laying of cables from SAT 1 in 1965 to WACS coming on stream in 2012.”

“We are involved in all the cables,” said Dr. Hay. “We have capacity on Sat 3 and SAFE, we landed the Seacom cable and now WACS. For us WACS represents real competition. For the first time we are seeing ourselves on a par with the incumbent and other players, and secondly we are seeing a massive increase in capacity which means that the proportional cost of that capacity will come down three- to four-fold, not necessarily on the retail front but certainly on the wholesale front. And thirdly it represents being part of a global network which puts us in a good position to deliver tier I services to ISPs with a point of presence (POP) in Johannesburg and Cape Town connected to over a hundred POPs around the world.

Telkom has started building the landing station just outside Yzerfontein and will manage the lading site. Included in the plans are a co-location facility where the other members of the consortium will house and operate their network equipment.