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In order to know more about PCCW Global’s  latest projects, namely the trilateral agreement related to the Pakistan & East Africa Connecting Europe (PEACE) cable system’s development, Telecom Review spoke to Sameh Sobhy, vice president, Middle East, Turkey, Africa, PCCW Global, who explained in depth the progress achieved thus far in the project. We were also eager to know how PCCW Global can intervene when natural disasters hit a certain country, just like it did in Mozambique not so long ago. Sobhy wrapped up the discussion by highlighting his aspirations for the remainder of 2019 and what the company aims to achieve next.

Recently, communication was lost in Mozambique due to two tropical cyclones which devastated the country. How was PCCW Global able to help in this disaster and what did it offer?

When watching reports of a disaster unfold in a country located somewhere else in the world, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend the scale and the depth of human tragedy that is taking place. While our team in Mozambique committed to bringing emergency communications support to complement seasoned local and international disaster management personnel, they witnessed first-hand the immense suffering and loss of the Mozambique people as a result of tropical cyclones Idai and Kenneth.

So, it’s become extremely important for us to respect both our teams which worked on the ground and above all else, the 1,300 people who lost their lives and the 3 million people who have been affected by these two tropical cyclone disasters.

The first cyclone, Idai, made landfall near Mozambique's fourth-largest city of Beira on 14 March, 2019, tearing through Mozambique’s coastal region and bringing hurricane-force winds, heavy rains and flooding to the provinces of Zambezia, Sofala, Manica and Tete. More than 1,000 people lost their lives as a result of Idai and thousands more were injured or displaced. The cyclone also devastated the region’s electricity and communications infrastructure, frustrating disaster response teams that require effective communications in order to coordinate emergency services and relief efforts. Beira City itself suffered extensive damage, with almost 80% of the economic infrastructure destroyed.

Barely two weeks later on 25 April, 2019, Mozambique was struck by yet another tropical cyclone. Despite local authorities in northern Mozambique evacuating more than 30,000 people ahead of the storm, Kenneth’s high winds and flooding still resulted in more tragic loss of life and damaged infrastructure critical for rescue and relief efforts.

Supported by PCCW Global’s team in Mozambique, Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) was among the first humanitarian organizations to reach Beira, which was only accessible by air in the wake of Idai’s devastation. Initially, one VSAT communications system was installed in the Matarara coordination center, from which relief operations to five surrounding communities were conducted. A second VSAT was also installed at the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) cholera treatment centre in Mafambisse. During Cyclone Kenneth a third PCCW Global VSAT station was installed at the airport in Pemba to assist the disaster response agencies.

Two VSATs provided by PCCW Global were handed over to Mozambique’s INGC - equipment that will enable the organization to rapidly deploy critical communications for any similar emergency in the country. Training for INGC teams to be able to install and operate the equipment has also been completed.

PCCW Global has been operating in Mozambique with a national and international telecoms license for over a decade, where we are a Tier-1 provider of international IP Transit services, providing high speed Internet access to both Mozambique as well as neighboring countries in southern Africa through our investment in a fully redundant undersea cable network. Our rapid response to aid disaster management agencies with the provision of emergency telecommunications services, following Mozambique’s national fiber network being crippled by the cyclones, was only made possible through our local staff presence, in-country telecommunications infrastructure, support teams and services.

Can you tell us more about the importance of the VSATs when facing a natural disaster?

Terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure in the form of fiber networks, telephone lines and even cellular and microwave towers are frequently either incapacitated or completely destroyed by the impact of a natural disaster such as a tropical cyclone.

While it can take a long time for technical teams to repair and re-establish communications through physical infrastructure, the beauty of VSAT is that it can be set up at any remote location and voice, data and video communications can be re-established with the outside world within an hour.

For example, in Mozambique, our VSAT systems set up in Beira proved critical in the establishment of communications in order to direct and coordinate relief efforts, since the city had been completely cut off from the outside world as a result of widespread flooding. Another two VSAT systems were also critical to relief efforts at the MSF cholera treatment center that was set up in Mafambisse, as well as at the airport in Pemba.

Fortunately, our local teams in Mozambique already had VSAT systems on hand, because under the right circumstances VSAT enjoys various advantages when communication services need to be provided in Africa. Firstly, and often most importantly, VSAT services can be deployed quickly and are not dependent on local terrain conditions or any existing infrastructure. As a result, VSAT offers higher availability of service in remote African areas and in some cases is even cheaper than the provision of fiber where the infrastructure is available. Over the last decade, we have found that the cost of deploying VSAT services has also become more affordable, antennas have become a lot smaller and the cost of satellite bandwidth has also become more affordable.

In addition, the cost of a 1Mbps local loop fiber circuit within Mozambique’s capital city of Maputo costs approximately $100USD. However, the same circuit delivered on fibre from Maputo to a rural province in the northern part of the country will cost approximately $1,000USD. Also, as is the case in many African countries, the instability of power at repeater stations and cable theft represents an ongoing problem which causes frequently fiber outage over long backhaul networks.

As a result, in a country like Mozambique, VSAT services are still required and PCCW Global has two large-scale satellite teleports installed in Maputo to support organizations within the country that use VSAT services to connect their branch offices in the northern parts of the country to their head offices in Maputo.

Telecom Egypt, PCCW Global and Hengtong have recently signed a landing party agreement that enables PEACE cable system to land and cross Egypt. As a matter of fact, it deploys a “system within a system” configuration. Can you elaborate more on this point?

An important achievement on the Pakistan & East Africa Connecting Europe (PEACE) cable system’s development roadmap has been the trilateral agreement between Telecom Egypt, PCCW Global and Hengtong, enabling the system to cross Egypt through new diversified routes between the Red and Mediterranean seas.

PEACE is a privately-owned cable system connecting three of the largest and most populous continents in the world - Asia, Africa and Europe. When complete, the PEACE system will provide the shortest and most direct data route from Asia to Europe, combined with exceptionally low latency, which is vitally important for a wide array of commercial and consumer applications.

The PEACE cable system features an innovative open system business model that provides for greater flexibility, as well as state-of-the-art branching unit technology that enables each country's bandwidth allocation to be modified during the lifetime of the cable. Traditionally, once a cable is laid and sunk into the ocean, such bandwidth flexibility is not possible without overall service interruption as well as costly maintenance procedures.

In addition, the PEACE cable system deploys a “system within a system” configuration, allowing individual cable stakeholders the ability to design the network to their own specifications as required without impacting others using the same cable system.

Being more technically specific, the PEACE project has been innovative in numerous ways, including:

  • Overall, PEACE is a new submarine cable system with a new model offering flexibility and agility of a private system together with risk and cost-sharing of the consortium model
  • PEACE offers POP to POP topology where the submarine line terminal equipment will be located at the datacenters to mitigate any cross-connection charge at the CLS
  • Seeing the ever-changing market dynamics requiring flexibility on the technology side, ROADM WSS branching unit facilitates reconfigurable bandwidth for the different points over the lifetime of the cable
  • The cable system enables flexible submarine networks offering both optical and electronic technologies
    1. The service supports fiber add-and-drop connectivity and optical add-drop multiplexing (OADM) in the optical domain, and support passive connectivity and power switching functions in the electrical domain

    2. PEACE can offer full fiber pair solutions between different points on the system or fractional fiber pairs that suit specific needs - for example, 1/4 dark fiber pair or 1/2 dark fiber pair or 1 dark fiber pair. PEACE is also able to provide customized spectrum that meets customer requirements and in predefined demarcation points
    3. The system design will adopt the latest 200G technology and WSS technology, which provides the capability to transmit over 16 Tbit/s per fibre pair - servicing growing regional capacity needs
    4. The system within a system topology allowing maximum flexibility to each partner

What are your future plans for the MEA region for the remainder of 2019?

As the last few months of 2019 are already upon us, it’s perhaps pertinent to consider recent projects in the context of the overall MEA region and where we fit in global communications and economic marketplace.

PCCW Global’s investment in the PEACE cable system will directly impact and benefit the MEA region. While various other cable systems also connect Europe to Asia, increased demand for connectivity is resulting in congestion on this busy route. Asia and Europe are now leading trade partners, with $1.5 trillion of annual merchandise trade. The two continents have made mutual connectivity between people, businesses and institutions a top political priority, and are moving quickly to strengthen ties, with a firm commitment to work towards mutual sustainable development goals.

Mutual economic growth and closer ties between Europe and Asia are fueling increased demand for connectivity between the age-old trading partners. The high speed and low latency PEACE cable system provides the necessary communications capacity to take advantage of these growing ties.

It’s no surprise then, that the historic trilateral agreement between Telecom Egypt, PCCW Global and Hengtong was signed during the ‘One Belt, One Road’ summit held in Beijing in April. Just like the ancient ‘Silk Road’ of old, which brought wealth, innovation and the free-flowing of ideas between Europe and Asia via the Middle East, this more modern trade opportunity, combined with new technologies can similarly benefit whole regions where trade and communications connect.

Traditionally under-served, Africa has the fastest-growing youth population in the world and is a market particularly ripe for investment because of the rapidly growing number of internet users and increasing demand for connectivity. The number of internet users on the continent grew at seven times the global average, clocking more than 3,600% growth between 2000 and 2012. In Africa too, the PEACE cable system provides the capacity to reduce connectivity costs in order to help increase the continent’s internet penetration rate and foster broad economic growth.

Commitment to Africa is also demonstrated by the Mauritius and Rodrigues Submarine Cable (MARS) project - a 700km, 16Tbit/s undersea cable system that will link the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues that will be ready for service this year because of the implementation of an innovative business model that made the infrastructure project possible for the small island nation.

With a population of approximately 40,000 people, Rodrigues is the second-largest island in the Republic of Mauritius. The residents of Rodrigues will benefit from vastly improved connectivity as well as access to a rich portfolio of digital applications, online services and content.

Our plans include the promotion of the world’s first software defined interconnect service, Console Connect, in the MEA region. Big business wants to be innovative and agile by taking advantage of new and disruptive technologies that the public cloud has to offer. However, the public internet has too many shortcomings for large scale implementation of business-to-business applications, including security challenges, inconsistent quality, delays and excessive technical complexity.

Tackling these challenges head-on, Console Connect is a game-changer for business - making the process of connecting to cloud-based, business-critical applications and geographically distributed offices, partners and clients simple, predictable and secure.

Console Connect incorporates network automation software that manages access to PCCW Global’s dependable, high speed international private MPLS network, allowing users with minimal technical ability to quickly spin-up virtual private connections, bypassing the insecure and unpredictable public internet and directly connecting to cloud application providers, partners and business locations.

This new level of speed and agility can be achieved in a few clicks with a simple, easy-to-use web portal, or can be integrated directly into enterprise applications via an API - providing robust and secure enterprise-wide access to partner infrastructure and the world’s leading cloud service providers including Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure as well as Google, Tencent and Alibaba cloud services.

The Console Connect platform itself now stands at the very heart of PCCW Global’s business by providing clients with an easy-to-navigate interface in order to provision fast, robust and secure global networking services and direct connections to cloud service providers worldwide.

Moreover, PCCW Global will continue to develop SDN and SDWAN partnerships and network coverage agreements in the region, bringing robust and secure global coverage, innovative technologies and technical support to both the Middle East and Africa.

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