Our conversation with Brian Herlihy

OPN talks with Brian Herlihy, continent connector and OFC/NFOEC keynote speaker.


imageBrian Herlihy, SEACOM CEO, at the groundbreaking in Maputo, Mozambique, on Nov. 5, 2008.

When Brian Herlihy founded SEACOM in 2006, his goal was to give East Africa its first-ever broadband access via fiber-optic cables. Three years later, the company began to provide fiber-optic bandwidth along the East Coast of Africa, linking South Africa to India and Europe via landing points in Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Djibouti and Egypt.

Herlihy is optimistic about the potential short-term and long-term benefits that broadband service will have in Africa, especially as the company plans to expand the number of cables and improve existing inland networks. Herlihy will discuss the challenges and successes of the SEACOM project as a plenary session keynote speaker at this year’s Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition and National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (OFC/NFOEC), which will take place from March 21-25 in San Diego.

What inspired you to initiate SEACOM?

Africa remains the most under-connected continent in the world, with its people having little or no access to efficient and reliable communications systems. Historically, international bandwidth has been so expensive that it prohibited Africa from leveling out with the rest of the world in global communications.

This alone was a compelling business case. It created an opportunity for us to develop a 1.28-TB/s, 15,000-km fiber- optic undersea cable that would assist communications carriers in Southern and Eastern Africa through the sale of wholesale international capacity to global networks at rates up to 90 percent cheaper than average.

What was your process for deploying a fiber-optic cable connection between Asia, Europe and Africa?

We’re trying to offer one seamless product to end users that spans 11 sovereign nations. That required us to overcome tax-related issues and to develop a single contract that contained the inner workings of agreements that would allow the product to go through all the countries. At SEACOM, as an international entity, we had to figure out how to sign contracts at a local level and then deliver the product in and out of each country.

The actual manufacturing and laying of the cable was commissioned to a turnkey contractor—Tyco Telecommunications. For the most part, they either utilized their own cable-laying ships or outsourced. With a project like this, there is a huge list of permits that must be acquired, starting with environmental permits and working up to the Ministry of Defense permits for the Tyco vessels that were used in certain territorial waters. All of these permits are inter-linked.

Ultimately, if permitting is done correctly, the process of laying the cable is not a difficult one. In fact, it’s very interesting. You start with a marine survey—a topographic survey of the ocean floor, so you can determine the most benign route to follow. Then you look at the seismic activity under the water and devise a strategy to avoid exposing the cable to underwater earthquakes. Next the data are fed into software that spits out a manufacturing specification for the cable itself. The cable is then manufactured on land per the specs of the marine route and loaded onto large vessels. In SEACOM’s case, we have three cable-laying ships carrying some 6,000 km of cable each.

We were trying to set that up in a very short period, while setting precedent in almost each African country that we were working in. The construction of the cable itself only takes 18 to 24 months.

What challenges did you face in connecting Africa with an undersea cable?

We encountered many technical challenges. SEACOM always adopted a positive neighborly attitude and went to great lengths to ensure that consultation processes were undertaken across the length of the route. For example, we engaged in discussions with rural fishermen and other regional stakeholders, and we tailored our approach to ensure that the cable did not disturb any of the South African flora and fauna.

You advocate a data-centric communications model for African communities. What do you mean by that?

Africa is already reaping the socio-economic benefits of having access to cheap and readily available broadband. First, there is the catalyst effect, as the cable will justify the investment in national fiber, fiber to the home, new wireless networks, data centers, call centers and business process outsourcing centers. Second, communications and information technology will improve efficiency in government, business, health, education, tourism and trade.

All of these factors directly contribute to economic growth. Africa will benefit from connection to the international information networks through education curriculum, medical collaboration and business efficiencies. However, we should also remember that Africa will contribute to global networks as well.

At a groundbreaking ceremony in Mozambique, one of our shareholders delivered a talk in which he spoke about natives and immigrants. He said that everyone over the age of 30 is an immigrant to this technology age. Only the younger people are natives. But 50 percent of Africa’s population is under the age of 25! That really makes me smile. These are the people who will exploit this technology and be limitless with what they can do.

What are the potential effects of fiber-optic broadband access on Africa’s economy?

Access to cheap and readily available broadband will allow Eastern and Southern Africa to connect to international broadband networks and gain access to previously inaccessible content and resources. The infrastructure should enable Africa to become a major competitor for service-based industries, research and education. The cost of doing business will also come down—and productivity will increase—in the financial, manufacturing and other sectors.

What other breakthroughs do you foresee in the optical communications industry?

The race in the optics world is to operate wavelengths at higher speeds and over longer distances without needing regeneration but while allowing for optical amplifiers. Preventing the need for regeneration means that, when a transmitted optical signal is converted into an electrical signal and then back into an optical one, it must be strong enough for transmission over a long distance. Optical amplification boosts signal strength without requiring conversion into an electrical signal but can only be done a limited number of times before the signal is too dispersed. A significant achievement in this area was the recent transmission of a 40 Gb/s wavelength over 7,000 km without regeneration.

Angela Stark is OSA’s public and government relations specialist.

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Our conversation with Brian Herlihy

OPN talks with Brian Herlihy, continent connector and OFC/NFOEC keynote speaker.

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