New Mediterranean cable set to deliver 5G web to North African nations

North Africa has lengthy been a backwater within the Mediterranean submarine cable sector, with no single cable offering web connection to the entire nations alongside the ocean’s southern shoreline.

However that is set to alter with the upcoming launch of a brand new cable – generally known as Medusa – linking southern Europe with North Africa and probably onwards via Egypt to Asia.

Business analysts say the 8,700km subsea cable, which is slated to be operational within the jap Mediterranean in 2025, and within the west by 2026, is a vital infrastructure growth as web utilization surges within the area.

Whereas at one finish of North Africa is a significant cable hub for site visitors between Europe and Asia, and Morocco on the different finish is nicely related to Europe and West Africa, the three nations in between – Algeria, Tunisia and Libya – are largely depending on connections to ageing cables that lack capability to deal with elevated bandwidth.

The challenge can be bold due to the geopolitical, diplomatic and financial obstacles it goals to beat.

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Algeria severed relations with neighbouring Morocco in 2021, whereas the border between the nations has been closed since 1994 due to longstanding tensions over the standing of the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Libya has been in a state of civil conflict for the previous decade, with the nation nonetheless divided between rival administrations within the east and west. 

Regional cooperation to enhance telecommunications and financial growth has additionally been stymied by instability within the wake of the “Arab Spring” revolutions and uncompetitive telecom markets. 

North Africa has one of many lowest charges of inter-regional commerce on the earth, at simply 2.4 p.c between the 5 nations, in response to UN commerce figures.

‘These are massive markets in the event you have a look at the broadband and web subscriber base, producing between 1 / 4 to a 3rd of all of Africa’s knowledge site visitors’

– Man Zibi, founder, Xalam Analytics

A number of tasks introduced through the years that had been slated to enhance connectivity, from the Trans-Maghreb Freeway to a high-speed railway from Morocco to Algeria and Tunisia, have by no means materialised.

The Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) has additionally not been a car for cooperation over its 35-year historical past, with the Moroccan king just lately lambasting it as “dysfunctional”. The final AMU summit of heads of state was 30 years in the past in 1994.

Demand for the web, nonetheless, has barrelled alongside, pushed partly by the area’s youth accounting for almost half of the 212 million inhabitants.

“These are massive markets in the event you have a look at the broadband and web subscriber base, producing between 1 / 4 to a 3rd of all of Africa’s knowledge site visitors. It’s a major base, however is nicely managed, form of ring-fenced by a small variety of telecom suppliers,” stated Man Zibi, founding father of Xalam Analytics. 

With no prospect of inter-regional cooperation to develop a submarine cable via a non-public consortium – the commonest enterprise mannequin within the international cabling trade – a European Union-backed cable developer stepped into the void. 

“The Southern Mediterranean, having been quiet for a very long time within the submarine cable sector, was all of the sudden lit up three years in the past [by the announcement of the Medusa cable]. EU funding has undoubtedly performed a component in that,” stated Julian Rawle, a US-based submarine fibre-optic cable advisor. 

A map displaying the proposed route of the Medusa cable (Medusa)

The EU’s $320 billion International Gateway technique, launched in 2021 to compete with China’s Belt and Street Initiative, seeks to bolster digital connectivity tasks in associate nations and in “the strategic pursuits of the EU”, with North Africa a selected focus as a consequence of its geographical proximity.

The $370m Medusa cable is being partly financed by the EU and its European Funding Financial institution (EIB). 

“That is the very first submarine cable to the touch all 5 North African nations. It’s establishing a European gateway to attach all of them, south to north, and can join North African universities to Europe, which is actually wanted. It’s within the curiosity of Europe to bolster the college degree in Africa,” stated Miguel Angel Acero, vice-president of operations at AFR-IX Telecom, the developer of Medusa.

The cable is being developed as “a carriers’ service” of different telecom firms knowledge, moderately than being a cable for a developer’s personal knowledge, like net giants Google and Meta’s cables, or a consortium of telecom suppliers that group collectively to put submarine cables that value an estimated $40,000 per kilometre, in response to Rawle. 

“That mannequin [of Medusa’s] form of fell out of favour for a very long time however with the funding they’ve been in a position to get it makes the enterprise case a lot simpler. They’re merely offering ‘dumb’ cables for others to make use of, and counting on the margins they make from wholesale exercise,” stated Rawle.

‘They’re merely offering “dumb” cables for others to make use of, and counting on the margins they make from wholesale exercise’

– Julian Rawle, submarine fibre-optic cable advisor

Acero drew an analogy to the development of motorways: “I put within the roads, they need to put the vehicles and the individuals.”

Crucially, the mannequin enabled Medusa to attach the area’s adversarial telecom suppliers.

“The consortium mannequin means all members are on the desk, however we don’t want to sit down with [the telecom providers]. They know they’re sharing infrastructure, however it’s separated. There aren’t any regional fights between them,” stated Acero.

In Libya, which remains to be divided into territory managed by the internationally recognised authorities in Tripoli and a rival administration within the jap metropolis of Benghazi led by navy commander Khalifa Haftar, Acero admitted that negotiations had not been simple.

However he stated these had been issues for the challenge’s native associate, Libyan United Worldwide for Telecommunication and Expertise (LUIC), to resolve.

“We’re not accountable. We contract for them, they need to get permits, and if any repairs or permits are wanted, they need to maintain that,” he stated.

Zibi stated that as Medusa shouldn’t be a challenge pushed by native telecom suppliers, “being a 3rd occasion supplier in all probability reduces among the geopolitical friction you may even see in most of these these tasks”.

A digital enhance?

The Medusa cable will bolster web capability and allow the introduction of 5G, however it isn’t anticipated to drive down prices for customers due to the unchallenged dominance of the area’s small variety of telecom suppliers. 

“If this had been in South Africa, Kenya or Nigeria, it could be moderately assured to see web capability costs fall by 10 to twenty p.c over the following couple of years, however in concentrated markets like North Africa’s, I don’t anticipate to see that,” stated Zibi.

“What the Medusa cable will do is help 5G roll-out going ahead, which can have been troublesome if further web capability was not there.”

With the ability to capitalise on the bolstered web capability will differ throughout North Africa, stated Yosr Abid, a Tunis-based economist. Essentially the most developed market, Morocco, could profit probably the most, as it’s extra open to overseas funding and has a extra conducive enterprise surroundings, she stated.

“Morocco is much more open than Tunisia and Algeria. There are extra restrictions and enterprise is extra sophisticated. It’s not a lot an issue of elevated digitalisation within the financial system, however extra about authorities insurance policies. Tunisia’s digitalisation technique shouldn’t be actually working very nicely,” she stated.

E-commerce at a country-based degree could also be one of many largest beneficiaries, however there’s additionally a necessity for higher roll-out of web connectivity to rural and lower-income areas. Digitalisation shouldn’t be anticipated to drive additional regional financial integration.

“Tunisia is extra related to Europe and France than different North African nations,” stated Abid.

North African nations are additionally not anticipated to emerge as new digital hubs internet hosting a number of knowledge centres and cloud platforms for hyperscalers, as is occurring in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a part of financial diversification efforts.

‘Tunisia is extra related to Europe and France than different North African nations’

– Yosr Abid, Tunis-based economist

Having such infrastructure bolsters the event of native content material and digital innovation in addition to enabling extra content material to be saved regionally as an alternative of in a foreign country.

Such developments could not occur because of the area’s constrained telecoms markets but in addition the proximity to knowledge hub clusters shut by, such in Marseille.

“With Europe simply throughout the water, Medusa and different developments could spur extra knowledge centres in Europe. On stability I might envision the European knowledge centre market benefiting extra from these cables than North Africa, as they may draw knowledge from Europe,” stated Rawle.

Morocco is, nonetheless, set to have the area’s first cloud computing platform, whereas Egypt is additionally anticipated to develop one within the coming years, stated Zibi.

The extra bandwidth of the Medusa cable would offer the chance to develop knowledge centres sooner or later if situations turn into extra conducive, he stated.

“Should you have a look at the highest 100 firms in Africa, a 3rd are in North Africa, so there’s a pretty massive enterprise market and potential demand for knowledge centres, however quite a lot of issues have to return into play first.”

Medusa may additionally prolong past Egypt into the Pink Sea “and perhaps to Saudi Arabia”, stated Acero.

The laying of latest submarine cables and repairs via the Pink Sea have been held again following harm to 3 cables attributable to a Houthi assault on a ship in March.

“The settlement with TE (Telecom Egypt) to increase Medusa into the Pink Sea is a great transfer on Medusa’s half, as it may well turn into a possible connection level on the Pink Sea. However in the intervening time, I don’t suppose a lot is getting accomplished,” stated Rawle.

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