Long lost fibre project finally announces next step – AfDB will fund Algiers-Abuja stretch of Niger-Chad fibre link

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Before Nigeria was connected by five international seaboard fibre cables, the project that was hovering in the background was an Algiers to Nigeria link. Just when it seemed that it had joined a long list of failed fibre projects, the African Development Bank has agreed to fund a key part of the route. Russell Southwood assesses the chances of the project seeing the light of day.

The announcement of AfDB funding for Algerian border to Abuja part of the link came from Algeria's ICT Minister Iman Houda Feraoun. He said in his announcement that the bank has agreed in principle to finance the link. Algeria Telecom has laid the fibre from Algiers to a border town called Guezzem that is on the road route to the Niger border town of Assamaka. The project has cost Algeria US$45 million so far so it is understandably keen to see it completed.

Both Chad and Niger have suspended their side of the project for financial reasons. Neither of the two former incumbent telcos has an established record in building large fibre projects of this kind.

There is some confusion in the press reports of the decision as to whether the route will go to Chad or to Abuja, although in commercial terms the latter would be the obvious choice. However, it would then be possible to put in a branch section to Chad’s capital Ndjamena.

The project is a ghost from the past as it started life as one of several grand schemes of the now almost forgotten New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). The intention was to offer inland countries access to an international fibre cable.

So what are the chances of this cable link finally being built? There are three hurdles that will need to be overcome if the project is to stand any chance of completion.

The first hurdle is that the AfDB will require those who will build the routes to demonstrate its viability through a feasibility process. Athough it may involve the telco incumbents in Chad and Niger, the money for the study will be to the Government of those two countries or to some regional body (perhaps ECOWAS or the African Union) to act as a disinterested party. Either way, this will be a slow process that might even take as long as 18 months to two years.

The second hurdle is that it is one thing to join fibre networks on a map but quite another thing to turn those connections into a viable business. The attractions of joining things up are obvious: at first sight, the capitals of the three countries are relatively close in terms of the huge distances between countries in Africa. But the physical connections are only part of the problem.

Both Chad (via Cameroon) and Niger (via Benin) already have fibre connections. However, the link for the latter has reliability issues. A redundant cable would be useful but the traffic in both country markets is tiny.

Since the project was first mooted the incumbent Nitel, originally conceived of as the project partner, went bankrupt and has now been revived as NTel. However, there are several networks that go up close to the border and connect to Abuja.

The key issue will be competitive pricing on an overland route. It was always more expensive to send an mpbs from Lagos to Abuja than it was to send it from Lagos to London. Although both sets of prices have fallen considerably, it still remains more expensive on the Lagos-Abuja route. More challengingly for any new cable, the price Lagos to London is now sub-US$100 per mbps.

So the overland route would have to find some way of matching the Abuja-London price via any one of the five seaboard cables in operation: NTel has recently reinstated the SAT3 cable. Competitive pricing will have to be achieved by transiting at least two countries where the transit party is an old-fashioned telco incumbent.

It would seem the chances of matching the Abuja-London seaboard rate would be low. But surely I hear you protest that the prices on overland route will be driven by the competitive reality of that Abuja-London alternative route?

The case of Chad illustrates the difficulties posed by the parallel reality that state telcos operate in. The Ndjamena-Doula fibre route took a considerable period of time to open because the two state incumbents could not agree the price for each country leg. Worse still, at first Chad gave the contract for the international cable to an investor who happened to be involved in a construction project in the country. This arrangement was later unwound.

The third hurdle is the combination of the security situation along parts of the route and the ability of whoever operates the route to keep it maintained. The obvious route out of Niger is via the border town at Katsina. But from there, the route to Ndjamena is either through territory where Boko Haram along the road to Maiduguri or to take a branch via Zinder to Lake Chad and then cross the Lake underwater to Ndjamena. Both pose enormous physical challenges, let alone security challenges.

Finally, operators with fibre networks in the North already have enormous problems maintaining their networks so reliability (compared to the seaboard route) will be an issue. So there is some way to go between this “in principle” funding announcement and the cable actually being built.

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