• Thursday, July 25, 2024
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Reliable internet, power crucial for digital economy growth — Chris Wood

Reliable internet, power crucial for digital economy growth — Chris Wood

In this interview, Chris Wood, chief executive officer of West Indian Ocean Cable Company (WIOCC), discusses the data centre market, internet connectivity, and rising cable cuts in the Red Sea with Temitayo Jaiyeola

The Nigerian data centre market is experiencing significant growth, with more players joining. What is driving this growth?

The data centre market is growing globally, not just in Nigeria, but the African data centre market has a large potential to grow because, historically, it has been underserved. What you are seeing now is the growth of Tier 3 independent data centres, which are carrier-neutral, and that’s quite important when you look at the context of data and the content being housed on the continent.

In Nigeria and Lagos, we see the growth of multiple tier 3 independent data centres. The Lekki Data Centre, owned by OADC, brings in the Equiano cable, which was very important, as we saw in the recent cable cuts.

What needs to happen amongst the local operators is for their capacity to be in multiple sites across the ecosystem. This could help prevent individual outages in specific data centres by having resilience and redundancy between data centres and across the ecosystem.

Data centres need a reliable, affordable power supply, which isn’t always available in Nigeria. How have you been addressing these challenges? How are you considering renewable sources of energy?

Power is an issue globally, but the amount of power data centres require is immense. In Lagos, we have a reasonably reliable power supply. Other countries in Africa also suffer from unreliable power, but in Lagos, we have a mix of the grid supply, gas supply, which comes from generators, and solar power. Here in Lagos, Lekki, we are building a solar plant on some spare land because we have to provide at least part of the power sustainably for our data centre. This is important in the future. As the data centres grow, there needs to be a real focus on sustainability and a reduction in the impact on the environment and the grid itself.

As populations grow and urbanisation occurs, there is an ever-increasing demand for power, so the more we can do independently to help support that, the better. That is one of the reasons that we are looking at the solar option here. I also think things like tidal power and wind power can be harnessed. It is not just about solar energy but all levels of sustainable power, including the gas supply.

Gas is far cleaner than coal-fired stations. We have solar initiatives in all of our data centres. At Lekki, we are building a solar farm to supply the data Center with supplemental grid power and provide some level of sustainability.

There have been conversations about how many submarine cables have landed in Nigeria, which has not necessarily translated to increased capacity in terms of Internet speed and courage in the country. Is there a reason for this?

It does not matter how much capacity you bring in on the pitch. If it does not have a way to get to the end user, then there will be no change in the end-user experience. The last mile is critical to the end-user experience.

Fibre network is probably the most important thing that needs to be built out, and this is buried fibre, not strung between poles, which becomes very vulnerable to cuts. There is a need to have a very resilient network and a protected network that is built underground.

What key opportunities and challenges will shape Nigeria’s digital economy?

Reliability is the biggest challenge and opportunity. The three most important things in digitising the economy are reliable internet connectivity, data centres, and power. Once you get to this level and everybody knows that the connection speeds will be incredible, there won’t be any contention in the network, and the speed will be reliable, it’s much easier to transition your economy.

Reliable, stable internet connections are needed for people to do their jobs properly. This will only happen when the network has more redundancy. To achieve 100 percent reliability, more reliable power, data centres, subsea cables, and terrestrial networks are needed. It is a long process.

It does not happen overnight. The government is doing a tremendous job in providing that and is starting to improve many of the connections on the power side, and subsea cables are coming. There is another cable landing that has already landed here, but it will go live by the end of this year or early next year, and it will provide another level of redundancy on the subsea side. More data centres are being built, which is a good thing, and more terrestrial and metro networks are being constructed so that things will get better. Redundancy in reliability will gradually improve.

A recent cable cut caused an internet outage in Nigeria; how can we build resilience for instances like this?

Resilience comes from more cables. One of the problems in Nigeria in March was that the four cables that were cut were where most of the traffic was, and the one cable that was live was the Equiano cable.

As we advance, each operator needs to look at their network redundancy and activate capacity on all cables so that if there is a cut, it has less impact. That is one way of restoring the network. Another way is having terrestrial connectivity between countries so that when there is a cable cut, the country’s traffic can transition across its terrestrial border and then come out on a subsea cable, and that’s unaffected.

That’s another way that can be protected. Also, going the other way around the continent at the moment, Nigeria, when the cable happened in March, we couldn’t go all the way around the continent because of cuts in the Red Sea, but that’s an unusual situation, and it is something we wouldn’t usually see.

Also, there haven’t been so many cables cut in quick succession in the last 30 years. This is unusual, and such dramatic events shouldn’t happen again.

A Bloomberg report disclosed that cable operators had to bypass the Red Sea route during the cuts. It will be interesting to gain insight into what happened.

It is not easy to bypass the Red Sea. Much of the Middle East and Asia Internet traffic flows through the Red Sea on the back of 15 cables. At the moment, three of them have been cut. All three connect to Africa and have a different portion of effect on Africa, and traffic then has to be rerouted. East African traffic is being routed around South Africa and up the West Coast to get to Europe, which is a long route.

So, the East African Internet latency, or the time it takes to bring content to the end user, is longer; the long-term answer is to build more cables. Recently, cables between Australia and South Africa have been announced. Others will be built from South Africa to South America and South Africa to North America, which will also probably come up with the West Coast of Africa to Nigeria before it goes across the Atlantic. Greater redundancy is needed to reduce the impact of any single outage.

Long-term solutions don’t happen overnight; building a new subsea cable is a 5—to 7-year process and takes a lot of money. For example, to build a cable from Europe and past West Africa to four or five countries down to South Africa will cost about $1 billion.

It is a large number that requires significant investment from multiple parties to make a reality, and it takes, as I say, at least 5 to 7 years. Nothing can be done in the short term on the subsea side. The best solution is to utilise all the existing cables to spread the traffic. If everybody does that, there’ll be far less impact than we have seen in recent months.

Do you see the recent unrest in the Middle East impacting digital infrastructure in the Red Sea region?

There is heightened global awareness of how internet traffic moves around the world. This awareness will probably lead to people looking at alternate routes to see how they can protect their networks and reduce the impact of any one situation, whether a cable cut or a political unrest issue, to try and remove those single points of failure in their network.

It is a natural reaction to what’s happening, and I think we’ll see people spread the risk across multiple roots and multiple cable systems over time. However, political risk is certainly a factor globally in different areas of the world, so that needs to be looked at. People need to understand how the traffic is routed and how best to protect against that.

What critical investments will data centre operators have to make looking ahead?

One of the biggest things we constantly examine is the cost of producing a data centre and the cost per MW of power we are housing.

If the cost base is as low as possible, the end user cost can be as low as possible. The more the costs get bloated, the more they can’t be passed on to the end user, and the growth profile becomes unsustainable. We need to make internet access a universal service that is almost a human right. You need high-speed Internet access, which delivers many opportunities to a growing population.

To keep these costs down, we are building data centres, making them as efficient as possible so that they use as little power as possible to deliver that content. This is the most important thing, especially when looking at the hyperscalers entering the country.

When you consider big global companies like Google, Microsoft, AWS, and Meta, they are looking for the lowest cost possible to get their content to the end user as fast as possible, as reliable as possible, and as cost-effectively as possible so that the overall impact is as widely felt as possible.

It is the biggest challenge for data centre companies and anybody serving the end user.

What are some of the key initiatives that WIOCC is undertaking in the country?

WIOCC’s focus is on improving the end-user experience by using scale to bring more capacity directly to the end user. We have huge capacity available at the coast, on the beach, and at the data centres.

But bringing that capacity to the end user is the critical thing we are focused on in the coming months and years, both on the national and metro networks. These are supposed to be used by the end users to connect as many homes to reliable fibre as possible.