GABON - MARKET GROWS IN THE LONG RUN-UP TO PRIVATIZATION

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Gabon has entered the communications era with a bang. As elsewhere in Africa, mobile subscribers exceed fixed lines: a staggering 100,000 to 14,000. The state telco is being prepared for privatization but the climate for external investment is not auspicious. The natural investor in Francophone Africa, France Télécom is struggling to get out from under a mountain of debt. The internet has developed but subscriber numbers are small and in large part focused in the capital. Edgard Mandrault describes what has taken place.

The first internet operator in Gabon was l’Office des Postes et des Télécommunications (OPT) who set up an experimental node in Libreville, the political capital of the country with a 128 kbps with MCI in the USA. From this initial platform came the inaugeration of a full service in May 1998 which was actually composed of two international links of 512 kbps: one with France Télécom and the other with Cable and Wireless.

In the course of developing the internet in the country, these links were connected to secondary nodes in the principal towns in the interior of the country (Port-Gentil, Franceville, Lambaréné) Because of the congestion on these links and as part of OPT’s development framework for modernisation, the Government is providing new investment in the last phase before the company is privatised. These important investment plans include: improvements to the telecoms infrastructure, notably the link to the fibre optic cable (now completed), local radio links, telephone centres and the automating of exchanges. A large part of this investment has been underwritten by a loan from the la Banque Islamique de Développement (BID).

At the same time and as part of a campaign to popularise internet usage in the country, OPT has taken measures to reduce access costs, line charges and the monthly supplement for a dial-up service. So today for example a dial-up subscription costs FF118 (a one-off charge) and users pay FF0.45 a minute for telephone use.

These different incentives combined with a strong demand have contributed to the acceleration of the development of the internet, particularly the number of individual and institutional users. There are about 5,000 individual dial-up subscribers, 40-50 institutional subscribers, and 15-20,000 individuals (largely young) who use the 50 cyber-cafes (of which 90% are in the capital Libreville).

In terms of ISPs, in addition to OPT there are now two other providers: Internetgabon (/www.internet.com) and Solsi (

Without the presence of a dynamic private sector and international organisations and other ambassadors, there is a very big imperative for the Government to take on the role of promoter of ICT. It has been made real by the creation of a ministerial department with responsibilities for ICT. It has launched two projects with UNDP to promote ICT (Projet RDD-Internet and Projet Gabon-Com). It also intends to start linking ministries online (as well as agencies associated with them) and as a prelude is conducting a study looking at how it will approach the process.

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It is also worth noting that the Government - with the support of the IMF and the World Bank - is in the final phase of restructuring the state telco prior to privatization. This important process has meant that various key pieces of legislation have already been put in place:

- Licences for gsm operators in 1999: three operators, of which two are private (Libertis, Celtel-Gabon et Télécel-Gabon) who have over 100,000 subscribers compared to less than 14,000 fixed line subscribers.

- The break-up of OPT into Gabon Télécoms and Gabon Postes,with two accompanying regulatory agencies.

- The privitization of Gabon Télécoms has been subject to a number of delays and the regulatory body will take some time to find its feet.

ayimambe@inet.ga