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World Bank financing approved for Central African Backbone and completion date set for 2011

With the arrival of the Glo One cable in Ghana and Nigeria, the two biggest bandwidth markets in West Africa, both countries will have two landing stations and by the end of 2011, a staggering 5 landing stations each.This plethora of landing stations and the bandwidth they bring will remain under-utilised and only be able to serve the coastal areas (including the majority of African capital cities in West Africa). The construction and strengthening of national and cross-border networks is the order of day of this massive amount of bandwidth is to be used. The recent decision of the World Bank to finance a network to connect Central Africa is an important step in this direction. Isabelle Gross spoke to Yann Burtin, Senior Operations Officer, Information and Communication Technologies Department of the World Bank about the proposed Central African Backbone.

According to Yann Burtin, the project was born out of a request from the Chadian Government about using an existing fibre route along the length of the Komé-Kribi oil pipeline and of building extensions to their capital, N’Djamena and to the Central African Republic’s capital of Bangui. The existing fibre route is 1,000 kilometres with 18 fibre optic pairs, the use of which is shared between Chad and Cameroon.

With the extension of the route to N’Djamena and Bangui, the network will be lengthened to somewhere between 1,800 to 2,000 kilometres. The project will also finance redundant routes and other extensions to Nigeria and Gabon. In other words, the project will allow both Chad and the Central African Republic access to international fibre bandwidth rather than being solely reliant on relatively expensive and not always reliable satellite bandwidth. It will also allow each country to maximise the use of the existing cable which thus far has not been widely used.

The Board of the World Bank has approved total project funding of US$215 million, of which US$26.2 million will go towards the first phase of developing each country’s national backbones to give them access to the international landing station in Cameroon. The total cost of this part of the project will be US$40 million with the balance being financed by the two Governments, la Banque Africaine de développement (BAD), la Communauté économique et monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale (CEMAC) and l’Union Africaine (UA).

It is envisaged that an investment vehicle will be set up with a legal existence with the objectives of getting the infrastructure built and maximising private investment. In this way it is hoped to be able to balance the interests of the two Governments (and their telco incumbents) and the promotion of the principle of open access to the new fibre.

In parallel with the creation of the structure to build the infrastructure, it will be necessary to put in place a regulatory framework in the three countries in question. New directives covering this aspect will be adopted by the regional body CEMAC and put into national law to give legal standing to the regional network between Chad, Central African Republic and Cameroon.

This new access to international fibre will allow both Chad and Central African Republic to get cheaper wholesale prices and as a consequence be able to offer cheaper Internet prices to customers in each country. For Yann Burtin, the new fibre network will need several routes to different landing stations to ensure competitive prices, hence routes to landing stations in Gabon and Nigeria are part of the project.

If project keeps to its implementation timetable, the completion milestones will be as follows : the financing transactions will be completed by mid-2010 and the installation of the routes and supporting equipment by 2011. If the timetable is met, the new route will be ready to connect to with the WACS and ACE landing stations in the same year. With abundant international fibre capacity, competition will at last be able play its part in lowering bandwidth prices in Central Africa.

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