By Anders Comstedt, Chairman, The AITEC East African Fibre Summit
This Summit is being held in Nairobi: 23-24 September 2009 (for more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or go to http://www.aitecafrica.com/event/view/44)
We have two high-capacity submarine cables landed on Kenya’s beaches, but only half of the region’s communication problem is fixed, if that. Now it is time to take on the much more costly and complex problem of leveraging this asset to get connectivity out to the users. Some argue that this will be achieved by building on the existing telecom systems and companies we see today. Others say there is an urgent need for a completely new approach.
Fibre optic cables are the essential highways for anyone travelling in the information world nowadays. The lack of international cables has held back East African investment in Internet access and telephony. This may appear to be a strange statement with all the success of mobile telephony in recent years, but it is nevertheless the case. With the international bottleneck now out of the way, with several parties having capacity in the two new cable systems, TEAMS and SEACOM, and with EASSy arriving next year, at last we can hope for a competitive market based upon all these operators having abundant state-of-the-art connectivity to the rest of the world, at a reasonable cost.
So from having just a dirt road carrying hardly any vehicles, offering tickets at prohibitive prices, we all of a sudden have a high-speed express train with extremely convenient and low-cost seats. This sounds good but a few problems do remain. The biggest one is that it is not available where you are, only on the beaches of Mombasa, Dar es Salam and Maputo. It doesn’t even dare to make land in Somalia and it is far away from landlocked Uganda and Rwanda. The second is that it costs money to organize the sale of tickets on this express train; sales agents (or telecom operators) have to take the risk of buying a whole carriage to ride for the next 20 years and then sell individual seats to get the prices that everyone is excitedly expecting. And you only wanted to read your email cheaply this evening?
Many voices in the media reflect levels of distrust related to the cable projects. SEACOM had just minor remaining installation work left resulting in a month’s delay and several comments suggested that it was not going to happen at all, just one of these empty promises that Africa is full of. And when it did go live, all this was conveniently forgotten and replaced with expectations of Internet everywhere at little or no cost. After all, prices were supposed to fall by 90 percent, right?
The truth is that we have just seen one of several bottlenecks open up. And the international part of the costs for your Internet connection is likely to fall by 90 percent. But it was a very important one as all remaining investments are depending upon cheap and reliable international capacity to lower the risks in any national expansion. The next bottleneck to deal with is the national fibre backbone needed in each country to distribute bandwidth beyond the capital cities. Unfortunately the distrust in the intercontinental submarine cable situation has held back planning, education and implementation for a new situation in most of East Africa. Instead of having reasonable parallel processes that would have hooked up at least a skeleton of capable fibre networks in and between metro areas weeks after the first cables go live. Only a few of the operators have had a reasonable readiness.
This will not be achieved by one or more individual companies - the entire supply chain and its political environment needs to be mobilized. The key asset in this is political trust and leadership, or its flip side, political risk. We still have unresolved issues on conditions for building out cross-border fibre connections. Equally, right-of-way conditions for laying cables along public roads are still holding back investments. Oddly, if available, they are now also more expensive.
But these are just the visible indicators of a bigger problem: Our minds are not adjusted to the new situation: Abundance of supply, even in Africa. Instead, far too many people, both in industry and politics, are now trying to find out how to take a dominant position in controlling or leveraging the next narrow bottleneck on the way to the consumer. A bottleneck that can be exploited is a small, singular point that everyone has to pass – much like a highway robber. An example of such exploitation has been controlling, and abusing, international gateways in traditional telephone systems. And if it wasn’t a bottleneck last week, maybe I can turn it into a bottleneck this week? Some of the positioning activities on fibre right-of-way in roads illustrates this drive to create new bottlenecks.
The lack of foresight goes all the way into the education system. East Africa will soon need hundreds if not thousands of well paid technicians with more than a superficial knowledge in handling optical fibre networks. Virtually none are educated by the regular system. Some technicians are sent on crash courses to vendors where they learn how to switch fusion splicers and measurement instruments on, in auto mode. As soon as anything unexpected happens they are lost. Who will be the first to have comprehensive fibre training in a massive scale in East Africa? There will not be local people to build all what is coming.
Since there is now extensive understanding of the impact of ICT for the growth of the most successful economies in the world, it is just a matter of time before this perspective trickles down to change thinking from “too expensive for Africa, we just need voice” to a basis for all future development “silver bullets”. But that could result in unlplanned expansion. Expats will be brought in to build and disappear. Too few East Africans will be even trained to maintain, much less to expand and rebuild.
In any case, if not held back by various interests eager to maintain and even reinforce the remaining bottlenecks for political and business greed, there will now be a considerable push and willingness to invest based upon meeting consumer demand. The proof of that pudding is in the eating: Are people investing based upon sound business expectations or are they buying a licence designed to exclude competition? Just like in other countries that have been through parts of this process, there needs to be a sincere discussion on what the roles of different parties should be in this new ecology. What can be subject to meaningful competition, like services, and what needs to be shared out of huge scale, network and first mover effects, like strands in optical fiber cables? East Africa needs to discuss more deeply and more sincerely how this basic infrastructure can be shared for mutual benefit between countries and between companies. Maybe the institutional framework, law and politics, are not in place to create the necessary trust. Elsewhere in the world the trusted party involved in sharing cables on a district and local level often involves local municipalities. Perhaps there is an opening for a private company to take this role in one or two countries. Obviously this is exactly what SEACOM did internationally after the failure of governments and old telecom operators to come to a reasonably open position fast enough on EASSy and its predecessors.
We can be sure about one thing: The biggest investment in the network is the part closest to the user. The investments in local access networks are orders of magnitude bigger than the national optical fiber backbones, the task immediately in front of us. But the success in bringing value out to users depends upon the conditions for the capacity now on the beach to come to your nearest town.
Anders Comstedt has, since the 1980s, been involved in fibre optics on executive level and is recognized as a pioneer in building shared optical fibre metro networks in Europe, not least making the business models work in a competitive market. Out of that, he now lectures on recent telecom policy trends at KTH, Sweden. Students brought him to Africa, where he has been providing advice to some parties, governments and others, interested in more open telecom markets in Sub-Saharan Africa as new cables are built. He will be chairing the East African Fibre Summit to be held in Nairobi over 22-23 September 2009. See http://www.aitecafrica.com/event/view/44 for further information.