After years of planning and construction, the first segments of the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable linking France and Sao Tomé & Principe are starting to operate as hopes run high that it will spur data traffic and economic development.

The link was launched at a ceremony held on Wednesday in Brusubi, Gambia. The cable carries data traffic and is expected to provide direct submarine cable connectivity to Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Guinea, Sao Tome & Principe, Sierra Leone and Gambia.

The ACE submarine cable will ultimately run for a total of approximately 17,000 km with seven more countries -- the Canary Islands (Spain), Benin, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Namibia and South Africa -- connected in the second phase.

About 12,000 km of fiber optic cable has been deployed along the coast of Africa with two landlocked countries, Mali and Niger, to be connected through extensions to the terrestrial network. Another segment, from Sao Tome and Principe to South Africa will be launched in early 2013.

"It is unfortunate that Africans have been dependent for decades on secondary and alternative routes for our international communications through other operators in the market," said Gambian Vice President Isatou Njie-Saidy, at the launch ceremony. "This has resulted in traffic imbalances, significant transit charges and high call rates."

She added that the cable will facilitate communication within the sub-region, contribute to the realization of the African Union Programme on Infrastructure Development, and create opportunities to modernize and enhance telecommunications infrastructure .

The ACE cable initiative started at the end of 2008, when France Telecom Orange group decided to develop a sustainable, competitive solution to the transmission capacity needs of its subsidiaries in Africa, noted ACE Consortium Management Committee member Yves Ruggeri, at the launch. The total design capacity of the cable is 5.12 terabytes, while the initial installed capacity is 1.92 terabytes.

By using this new network, the telecoms operators in these countries are expected to develop innovative broadband services that are essential to their economic and social development. The ACE cable will also contribute to the development of multinational companies present in Africa by improving connectivity between the local subsidiaries and their global networks.

Sierra Leone is ready to go live with the cable system and has created all the necessary structure needed to enhance the implementation of the ACE project, according to Sierra Leone Minister of Information and Communications Ibrahim Kargbo.

"The government of President Koroma is keen to ensure that the system is not only effective and efficient but should also reflect the purpose for which it was established, that is to enhance speed, affordability and connectivity," Kergbo told journalists in Gambia.