Ifeloju Alakija, president of the Association of Submarine Cable Operators of Nigeria (ASCON)/Head, Regulatory Services, MainOne and Bolaji Mudashiru, ASCON’s General Secretary/Technical Manager, ACE/Dolphin Telecom, in this interview with Frank Eleanya speaks on the new association, its objectives and focus on broadband penetration across Nigeria.
What is the Association of Submarine Cable Operators of Nigeria (ASCON) all about?
ASCON is the Association of Submarine Cable Operators of Nigeria. It is an advocacy group of submarine operators in Nigeria that was birthed on the 10th of December, 2018. It was formed in recognition of the fact that over 95% of internet and communication traffic into Nigeria is carried over the five submarine cables that land in the country. We have realized that subsea communication assets have to be protected at all costs, because as a nation, we cannot afford to have any disruption to communication flow in and out of the country. These submarine cables are the arteries and gateways to Nigeria.
Our objectives are to create awareness of what submarine cables are and their importance to broadband penetration and the digital transformation of Nigeria. We also create awareness on the various marine activities that challenge and put these submarine cables at risk and how we protect against them. ASCON would serve to facilitate collaboration and multi-stakeholder engagements among the various seabed and maritime stakeholders on how we can peacefully co-exist and share the seabed in harmony. Our focus is on how we can work together such that in the exercising of our respective rights of to the seabed we do not conflict and negatively impact on each other’s operations. ASCON would in addition, support and manage dialogue with government and other public – private engagement towards ensuring that the protection these assets are enshrined in relevant legal and regulatory frameworks in the country. Finally, ASCON will be a forum for the exchange of legal and technical and environmental information and best practices towards the optimal protection and operation of the various subsea cables landing in Nigeria.
Prior to the advent of submarine cables, what was there and how did we get here?
Back in the analogue stages, a satellite communication was the primary medium for the transmission of communication and internet traffic and this caused significant delays in terms of delivering data due to the limitation of this technology. Today, satellite communication role in this regard has reduced to less than 5%. Before submarine cable there were copper and coaxial cables. These varieties of cables were very limited in connectivity capacity. If you consider operators like MainOne, it has over 7000 kilometers of fiber optic submarine cable running all the way from Portugal down to Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. Other submarine cables cover about 14,000 kilometers of distance, thus they cross long distances. When you talk about capacity, it has very huge capacity to carry untold volumes of data which helps in terms of the businesses’ communication service. Advocacy on the utilization of this capacity is another area where ASCON comes into play.
It is called submarine cables because these are extensive cables which lie on the floor of the ocean connecting countries and continents of the world. There are about 1.5 million kilometres of optic subsea cables globally, connecting almost all the countries of the world for the purpose of transmitting communication signals, whether it is internet traffic, voice or data. A single submarine cable has capacity of 30 million voice channels which means it can take minimum of 30 million telephone calls simultaneously; if you multiply that by the number of submarine cables in existence that is huge. It is superfast, it is more reliable, very economical and it is resilient. The cables we have today are responsible for over 95% of the internet, communications and broadband connectivity we enjoy in Nigeria today. This covers activities ranging from sending & receiving emails, surfing the internet, streaming and downloading of music, videos and other digital content, teleconferencing, social media engagements, banking and financial market transactions, various electronic commerce activities, phone calls & international communications, telemedicine, long distance education, etc.
The first submarine cable was laid in 1858, a telegraphic cable connecting Britain to the USA. The next generation of submarine cables in terms of technology, were the coaxial and copper cables which were used by telephone companies. The TAT-1 (Transatlantic No. 1) was the first transatlantic telephone cable system, and it was laid in 1956.
What is the capacity of the five submarine cables in Nigeria and utilization rate?
Cumulatively we have over 40TBPS international connectivity capacity landing at our shores in Lagos. In terms of utilization, across all cables we are using less than 10% because we do not have the requisite terrestrial infrastructure to transmit this capacity from the shores across the country, particularly to the unserved and underserved areas. The relevant national backbone is not available. That is the challenge we are currently facing with broadband penetration. Thus, the connectivity and speed people will experience in Lagos will be totally different from what they find in their villages. In this regard, we would collaborate with other telecommunication stakeholders in seeking for government intervention.
What are the threats?
70% of the threats to submarine cables are external aggression – man-made factors. This falls into two categories: threats from fishing activities and threats from shipping activities. Fishing activities include harmful practices like bottom trawling. This category of fishing gear are dragged on the seabed by the fishing vessel above, and when they come in contact with submarine fiber optic cables in the process of going over them, they damage the cables by either cutting them or snagging at them causing a shunt. For shipping activities, you are looking at anchorage. When ships drop their anchors in areas where there are submarine cables and it lands on them, there will be damage. In 2008, a ship dragged its anchor for 300km and damaged 6 subsea cables in water depths down to 180meters. There are also direct threats like dredging activities and off-shore activities in the oil and gas industry; where oil and gas installation, production and maintenance activities occur near or along cable paths it could result in damage to the subsea optic fiber infrastructure. Likewise, dredging operations near cable routes jeopardizes the safety of the cables. The last category is the natural disasters such as; submarine earthquakes and landslides, waves & ocean currents, Tsunami and storm surges, extreme weather (e.g. hurricanes), icebergs or volcanic activity, climate change etc. These natural disasters have the capacity to break submarine cables on the ocean floor where they occur.
For instance, in 2006, of the southwest coast of Taiwan, an earthquake triggered submarine landslides near junction of 2 tectonic plates, resulting in turbidity current that flowed over 330 km & broke 9 cables in sequence.
Which of these threats stand out for Nigeria?
It is a 50-50; shipping activities happen every day. The ntel SAT3 has suffered damages a lot based on anchorage. Another major issue is the fishing activity that goes on everyday but thankfully most of our systems have AIS – a surveillance tool that monitors vessel movement along the cables. Regardless, cable operators have been very vigilant.
What quality of engagement are you looking forward to having with the authorities?
The Nigerian Navy is one of the agencies ASCON would collaborate with because of the role they play in the maritime affairs of the nation. There is also the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) which has begun to recognize the five submarine operators in the country. These agencies have been helpful in terms of their support to our advocacy and warding off erring vessels that attempt to anchor along the path of submarine cables. The Department of Petroleum Resources is also a partner. They are regulators of on-shore and off-shore petroleum activities including the installation subsea oil and gas assets e.g. Pipelines.
A few of the things we will be looking at is to get the federal government through the relevant legislative process to designate submarine cables as critical national infrastructure. The criticality of submarine cables to the economy, socio-political life, broadband penetration and national security cannot be overemphasized. It is about time the government begins to pay attention to submarine cables first by knowing what they are; understanding their importance; knowing the dangers that they face; and putting measures in place to protect them. Starting with designating them as critical national infrastructure will be a very good place to begin. The Cyber Crime Act of 2015 under section 3 says that: “The President may on the recommendation of the National Security Adviser, by order published in the federal gazette designating certain computing systems and all networks whether physical or virtual and all computer program, computer data and all traffic data vital to this country that incapacitates or destroys or interface with any such system and assets of would have a debilitating impact on national and economic security, national public health and safety or a combination of this matter as constituting critical national information infrastructure security.”
This designation of telecommunication infrastructure as CNI is yet to be actualized. There have been moves in time past to ensure that telecommunication assets are designated as critical national infrastructure. One of the things ASCON is going to do is to ensure that subsea cables, specifically because of the roles they play as arteries of our nation are designated as critical national infrastructure. ASCON would also engage relevant authorities in government to create policies to promote the unrestricted installation, operation and maintenance of submarine cable assets, specifically with reference to the operation of cable vessels. For example, we would have engagements to ensure that no, cabotage restrictions are implemented by government, in other words cable vessels should not be prohibited from operating in our exclusive economic zones on the grounds of national content. Cable vessels because of the nature of their sophistication and complexities are currently not Nigerian flagged. They are foreign vessels and foreign manned. There about 60 of them in the world today and none of them is Nigerian or even African owned. Imagine a situation whereby there is a cabotage restriction that mandates that only Nigerian manned vessels can operate in Nigerian waters, would you be able to install new cables or maintain or repair existing cable, especially where there is a cable fault?
Another engagement is maritime spatial planning. We are taking a forward-looking stance into the future. There will be an increased demand for the sea resources and for the seabed. There will be competing interest from oil and gas operators, telcos, fishing activities, offshore wind-farming for electricity generation. In this regard we will need a framework that ensures that we co-exist without interfering with our respective rights and that we are all able to share the seabed in harmony. ASCON will advocate for the creation of a spatial planning framework to accommodate existing stakeholders and future stakeholders to ensure that submarine cables are protected. Other avenues that would be explored towards the protection of our assets would be cable protection corridors, and the expansion of the existing no anchorage zones.