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Patricia Bagnell   Patricia Bagnell wants to encircle Africa with a powerful communications cable 20,000 miles long. (Globe Photo / Jim Walker)


A $1.8 billion ring around Africa

Needham's Patricia Bagnell is pursuing her dream of bringing high-speed Internet and telephone connections to the continent

By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff, 7/22/2001

Begging for money can take a lot out of a person, and Patricia Bagnell's been at it for eight years now.

    Wiring a continent

SUNDAY: New undersea cables will provide Africa with its first world-class connections to the global telephone network and the Internet.
* Africa goes online
* A $1.8 billion ring around Africa

MONDAY: Thousands of people are flocking to African cybercafes to get online.
Entering the queue
Internet visionary hopes his plan has the E-Touch

TUESDAY: To put its fledgling telecommunications infrastructure to use, Afriva needs all the computer programmers and technicians it can get.
Dearth of talent frustrates fledgling Internet efforts
Critics don't deter Internet visionary

But there's still no sign that the strain is getting to her. She's heard and answered the same skeptical questions a thousand times. But Bagnell, 50, of Needham, still answers with the same relaxed smile, the same good humor.

The flak hasn't come just from journalists. Bankers, investors, engineers - they've all taken their pickaxes to Bagnell's $1.8 billion dream of bringing high-speed Internet and telephone connections to Africa through a new undersea cable that would ring the continent. But she still believes.

''This represents the best [business] opportunity in today's world,'' she said of the project, known as Africa One. ''It's the most untouched [region], with the most potential.'' And she's convinced she'll soon have the bank financing needed to launch her plan.

Not everybody shares her confidence. Michael Ruddy, an undersea cable expert at Terabit Consulting in Cambridge, thinks Bagnell has picked the worst possible moment to start an undersea cable project.

The ''system would be serving one of the least developed routes in the world,'' said Ruddy, who notes that excess capacity is preventing the construction of new undersea cables elsewhere, even between nations with vast amounts of data traffic. In addition, he thinks Africa One will soon face tough competition. South Africa this year will finish its own new undersea cable, SAT-3, that will serve nations on West Africa's coast. With SAT-3 in place, Africa One becomes a less attractive investment, Ruddy said, ''so it's an uphill battle to achieve financing.''

But Bagnell insists that SAT-3 changes nothing. She thinks there's enough potential telephone and data traffic in Africa to support two undersea cables, and notes there remains nothing to serve East Africa's coast. She's already signed contracts with companies in West Africa and throughout the rest of the continent. Besides, the circular design of Africa One makes it more reliable than a straight point-to-point connection. If there's a break anywhere in the cable, all traffic can simply be routed around it. ''That's a great technological advantage over SAT-3,'' said Bagnell.

She's confident that by this time next year, the cable-laying ships will have begun their work, and that by 2003, a decade after Bagnell was first tempted by the idea, the cable will be providing Africa with a communications network as rapid and reliable as any in the world.

Bagnell says Africa One is a vision born not out of any romantic out-of-Africa-style fantasies, but simply her conviction that she'd come across the business opportunity of her life. She's clung to it, even after the giant firm she once worked for, AT&T, abandoned the project.

Bagnell graduated from Connecticut College in 1972, but found it hard to find work with a BA in English. So she took a job with New England Telephone Co., the ancestor of today's Verizon. There she spent 12 years in customer service and operations. In 1983, she moved on to AT&T Corp., where she worked as a quality management executive in the company's long-distance phone division.

Bagnell left AT&T in 1986 to become an independent telecom consultant. Her clients included AT&T's submarine cable business, which at the time was a world leader in laying communications cables on the floors of the world's oceans. She also found time to raise three children and earn a master's degree in education from Harvard in 1993.

At around the same time, Bagnell traveled to Hawaii to meet with Bill Carter, a client who was then head of AT&T Submarine Systems. Also on hand was Ahmed Laouyane, an official of the International Telecommunications Union who worked with phone companies in developing countries. It was Laouyane who suggested to Carter and Bagnell that AT&T was neglecting a spectacular business opportunity in Africa.

Laouyane wasn't thinking of the Internet then; hardly anyone was in those days. But Africa desperately needed better telephone communications, as well as dedicated data links for use by businesses and governments. ''He said, `Africa's got a real big problem. What can you do to help it?''' Carter recalled.

The trouble was - and is - that the continent lacks a reliable communications ''backbone,'' a high-capacity network carrying bulk traffic to every region. Also absent were similar high-speed links to Europe, Asia, or the Americas. As a result, the only way African countries could telephone the outside world, or even each other, was to use satellites orbiting 22,000 miles away in space. Satellites handle far fewer calls than a cable backbone, and at much higher cost.

Much of that expense could be saved, Laouyane argued, if someone built a cable network to connect Africa to itself and the rest of the planet.

There are unique geographical and political challenges involved in wiring a continent of deserts, valleys, rain forests, and 53 different countries that are often at war with their neighbors and their own citizens. But Africa's coastline is a different matter. The continent is an island separated from the rest of the planet by water at nearly every point: the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean. Each of these oceans offers a hospitable resting place for submarine cables. The first was laid in 1880 to carry telegraph signals from London to Cape Town.

Today, such a cable can be made of optical fiber, each strand capable of carrying thousands of phone calls at the same time. Better yet, it's possible to string such a cable all the way around the African coast, in one vast fiber-optic ring over 20,500 miles long.

This cable would pass near Gibraltar, making it a trivial matter to tie it in to Europe's superb telecom systems, and from there to the rest of the world. As for communication between African countries, each nation with a coastline could tap directly into the cable, and gain a direct link with every other country on the coast. Calls between, say, Nigeria and Kenya would simply zip around the ring, rather than taking a 44,000-mile trip through outer space, to London, and back again. And because of the cable's vast data capacity, each call would be far cheaper than a satellite link.

It would cost nearly $2 billion to create such a system, but Carter and Bagnell believed they could get the money from Africa's own phone companies. Once such a backbone was available, these firms would save millions in satellite fees every year.

The two were hooked. Carter began planning the construction of the network, while Bagnell traveled to dozens of African nations, gradually winning them over to the idea. One by one, countries committed to purchasing capacity on the network once it was completed.

Initially, the biggest holdout was South Africa.

''When I first started working with Telkom South Africa [in 1993, still under the former apartheid regime], they asked me, `Why would you want to connect to another African country?''' Bagnell recalled with a smile. ''They thought we were crazy.''

Today, Telkom has almost completed its own West African undersea cable, SAT-3, with connections to eight other African countries in addition to South Africa. Telkom officials say they're open to the idea of linking up with Africa One for additional capacity, if the project completes its financing. In addition, Africa One is negotiating with Sentech, a multimedia data networking firm owned by the South African government.

Other African countries were an easier sell. Even nations without a coastline, such as Zambia and Malawi, clamored to get connected. In 1995, in a hotel on the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Bagnell hosted a summit of African phone companies which laid out plans to create modern links between coastal countries and their landlocked neighbors. ''We got neighboring countries, the telephone companies in southern Africa, talking to each other for the first time,'' she said.

Then in 1997, the plan unraveled. Shaken by unexpected weakness in its core long-distance telephone business, AT&T launched a restructuring that left no room for the firm's submarine cable business. It was sold to Tyco International Inc., then based in Exeter, N.H. Today, Tyco's undersea cable business brings in $3 billion a year. But the new owners had no interest in what some saw as a wild-eyed scheme to wire Africa. So Africa One got the ax.

An exasperated Carter left AT&T to join a young undersea cable firm called Global Crossing. Bagnell, still committed to Africa One, went on a seemingly quixotic quest for new financial backers. But she found some. CIC International, a New Jersey electronics firm, put in $45 million. Even more important was the support she got from another AT&T spinoff, Lucent Technologies Inc., which provided $6 million in cash and $4 million in engineering assistance. Bill Carter's Global Crossing signed on to manage the project.

By early this year, Bagnell had won commitments from the state-owned phone companies to buy $600 million worth of capacity on the proposed Africa One cable, a major incentive for banks leery about lending money for such a project. But even that hasn't been enough to overcome worries about the recent collapse in the global telecommunications sector, as phone companies like British Telecom and equipment makers like Lucent and Cisco face plummeting demand and falling stock values.

''It's made closing and financing on [this] project difficult,'' Bagnell admitted.

Still, she keeps the faith, believing that within two years, a decade after Africa One was conceived, the network of her dreams will come to life.

This story ran on page A25 of the Boston Globe on 7/22/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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