InterviewsWhen you think of SEACOM you think “The company that brought broadband to South Africa.” You think corporate giant. You expect a stiff and businesslike environment where there is very little time for play. Sure they work hard on their public image, but who doesn’t? The largest Internet Cable in Africa has to be run by suits, you think, and then Aidan Baigrie greets you in reception with breakfast bowl in hand…

When I arrived at the SEACOM offices in Bryanston to interview Aidan I was surprised to detect a relaxed atmosphere. The articles framed on the walls and the carefully selected magazines on the coffee tables remind you that these guys are serious about what they do, but you realise that this is not the traditional corporate morgue filled with stiffs.

While waiting for Aidan I get offered coffee in a proper mug, not the usual mini-cup that you usually get, and while everything around me is neat and well kept I am aware that this is not dressing up to impress visitors, this is how they work, and being comfortable is more important than image.

As Aidan leads me through to the boardroom he chats animatedly about a range of subjects. He is clearly passionate about what SEACOM does and shares in the vision of bringing true broadband capability to Africa.

As we settle into the interview he jokes about the “beach boy” vibe he has going on with him bringing breakfast into the boardroom…

Geek At a Glance

Aidan Baigrie

Aidan Baigrie

Personal OS: MacOS X
Laptop: MacBook
Cellphone: Iphone 3gS
Do you still carry a notebook and pen?: Yes.
Did you know factoid: Did You Know the SEACOM cable increased South Africa’s Internet Cable capacity tenfold when it arrived?

How did you end up at SEACOM?

I was a management consultant in the Middle East when I got a phonecall from our CEO. He was looking for an MBA with experience in Telecoms. A few meetings later I ended up here!

Are you a tech geek?

No.

What are the SEACOM plans for the future?

We are not planning any new cables for the immediate future. Our vision is to close the loop around Africa and Mauritius as far as Cable systems are concerned.

SEACOM is very well known by the end user even though you do not provide services to them. Is this a strategy or was this unplanned?

SEACOM wants to be a consumer brand. We want the end user to call their ISP and ask “do you get your Internet through SEACOM?” If our image features in the public’s buying decision this directly impacts ISP’s buying strategies. If a consumer will sign up with an ISP because we provide the bandwidth to them more ISPs will buy bandwidth through us.

Building a consumer brand creates pull – because we are well known ISP’s want to be associated with us. The downside is that our failures are very public, and sometimes we get blamed when we are not at fault! It is a bit of a knife edge, but if we manage it well the benefits outweigh the risks.

Do you have engineers on staff that takes care of the cable?

SEACOM is a project management company, not an engineering firm. We manage all the systems that make the SEACOM cable possible. We make things happen, and make sure all the companies taking care of the cable provide the best services possible.

Can people host at your landing point?

Yes. We have a peering point in Mtunzini, and if you want you can put your servers there. The downside is that you are responsible for managing the connectivity inland. If you host in Gauteng, then you are not personally responsible for the backhaul to the peering point. The choice is yours, the option is available.

Do you provide local caches for content?

One of our strengths is that we have no capacity constraints on the cable. We can scale massively, but that said we are implementing caching to points in Africa. One of those caching points will be in South Africa.

Right now our round trip time to the UK is 280milliseconds, which is pretty impressive.

How does SEACOM invest in Africa?

We are the first and only cable to offer cost price bandwidth to institutions not using that bandwidth for commercial purposes. We provide this to several universities and institutions. SEACOM also has special models to offer capacity to countries who cannot afford to lay out for infrastructure to connect to International Cable systems. Typically a region will begin paying us for the hardware and bandwidth we provide as soon as they reliable make profit on their bandwidth.

We call it a balance on cost model with return.

What do you see for the future of broadband in South Africa?

Well we have seen recently that prices have come down. I think this trend will continue while quality will go up. I expect more wireless Internet and less cable based Internet. South Africa is rolling out one of the most sophisticated HSDPA networks in the world! Cell-C is rolling out country wide, and they have a capacity of 100mb/s on their network, so there is scope for growth.

How do you know where exactly the cable is broken?

Since our famous outage earlier this year everyone wants to know about that. Well it works two fold: One, there are repeaters every few kilometers, and then there is power running on the cable. With electricity you can get a pretty accurate idea of where a break in a cable is. You can work out the distance like that.

Okay, now that you have found the break, how do you splice it?

Splicing is very involved. There are ships on standby for a breakage 24/7. These are VERY expensive and sophisticated ships, purpose built for the job at hand. Getting the ships there are often also a challenge – obviously weather and travel distance play a role when we want to get them to the site in the event of a breakage, but there is also another challenge rather unique to Africa.

A lot of the waters the ships need to enter are dangerous. The most well known threat is the Somali Pirate problem, but that is not the only area where the ships are at that kind of risk. These ships are expensive, and would be a great prize for a bunch of criminals. Often we cannot state publicly that the ships are even on the way to a break when we have found it, or obviously where the break is.

We have to stay mum on repairs in order to ensure their safety, we have multiple ships involved in repairing each break, and have to be conscious of the lives at risk when we send ships out.

Now on to the actual repair. The cable is often very deep, in the break this year it was four and a half kilometres under the surface of the ocean. Currents and earthquakes shift it from where it was put down, so it is a bit of a hunt to locate the actual cable.

Once it is found a grappling hook with a cutting device is lowered to the cable. It then grabs the cable and cuts it. Then it is lifted. Now the cable does not rise vertically either, the ships have to sail “up cable” while raising it. Once the two ends are at the surface the ships often cant see each other!

They might be tens of kilometres apart at this stage. Then, to make sure we have removed the break from the cable we roll up cable for another five kilometres and cut the cable there, this removes ten kilometres from the cable.

Once that is done, twenty kilometres is spliced into the cable. Once that is done, and splicing alone takes a lot of time to do, the cable is lowered back to the seafloor. It now lies in a loop on the seabed.

The latency penalty is luckily minimal on a fibre cable like this.
SEACOM Logo
Interviewing Aidan was very informative. He speaks easily and amicably, and makes you feel very at ease. I would like to thank Linda Carter from SEACOM for setting up the interview. You can get hold of SEACOM via their website http://www.seacom.mu or follow them on twitter @seacomlive

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