KENYA’S JAMBONET BLOCKS THE INTERNET BUT THE PRIVATE SECTOR FIGHTS BACK

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The worm has finally turned. In mid-December Kenya Telkom’s monopoly, international internet connection company Jambonet decided to block a number of its ports claiming they "were being used to transmit VOIP traffic." The net result was a near two-day shutdown of internet services in Kenya a week before the elections. Private sector lobby groups TESPOK and the Cyber Café Operators Association of Kenya first protested and then decided to fight back. TESPOK members announced its intention to set up a consortium which will apply for a licence to compete with Jambonet. Meanwhile Kenya’s ruling party for over 40 years - KANU - lost the election. As the dust begins to settle, Russell Southwood looks at what’s happened and what it all means.

The shutdown affected nearly all Kenyan Internet service providers (ISPs), which are obliged to use the Jambonet high-speed data link. Private sector lobby group TESPOK and Cyber Cafe Operators Association of Kenya were quick to respond:"In a move that brought corporate communications to a complete standstill and has precipitated losses amounting to tens of millions of shillings, Telkom Kenya on Monday 16th December installed filters in their data network which blocked certain types of Internet services from transitting Jambonet, their Internet backbone service and the only Internet gateway in the country. The blockage caused a total failure of all VPN (Virtual Private Network) communications and also cut off interactive Internet applications such as MSN & AOL Messenger, Netmeeting and a number of other chat utilities".

"The interference with VPN communication is the most damaging of all the blockages as many organisations, especially multinational corporations depend on VPN technology for secure transmissions of sensitive information over the public Internet. Kenyan corporations have experienced losses amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars since the implementation of the blocking filters on Monday 16th December".

They were quick to point out that regulating VOIP calls was not Telkom Kenya’s role:"This move by Telkom Kenya is illegal in that it is not their job to regulate or enforce communication policy. This is the sole domain of the industry regulator Communications Commission of Kenya. We have confirmed that permission was not sought from CCK nor were they notified about the blockages".

It followed its first statement up with a second that laid down the gauntlet:" The current Jambonet Monopoly is no longer tenable and their actions this week are legitimate grounds for removing this monopoly. The Internet Community is the body that has the technical and commercial know-how to operate an effective backbone and they have voted unanimously that they are not prepared to accept a solution being imposed upon them. The major ISPs have today formed a consortium which is creating an independent company that is applying to the CCK for a license to operate a second International Internet Gateway and Internet backbone".

The speed and type of response from TESPOK and the Cyber Cafe Operators Association of Kenya has set an interesting precedent for the rest of Africa. Most lobbying by the new African ICT private sector is either not yet well organised or insists that quiet pressure will yield best results. This is largely because no-one really believes that the political process works and that you should not antagonise those in power. However if governments can change hands, then perhaps occasionally a more "up-front" attitude might yield results. If a government won’t deliver the kind of change everyone can see is needed perhaps the time has come to challenge it publicly on its failures with practical alternatives. (For example, what might be done to overcome the masterful inactivity of the Ghanaian government on ICT issues?)

The proposed consortium will offer international connectivity and local internet backbone distribution. Nearly all of Kenya’s main ISPs will be involved in the consortium: ISPKenya, SwiftGlobal, Wananchi Online, UUNet Kenya, Kenyaweb, AccessKenya, Interconnect, NairobiNet. Africa Online (whose service aqppeared not to be affected by the shutdown) is probably the only notable absentee from the list.

Initially each of the ISPs will have an equal share in the consortium and the company should be poised for a listing on the Nairobi Stock Exchange by the end of its first year of operation in order, according to a consortium spokesperson,"to give every Kenyan an opportunity to play a part in the development of Kenya’s Internet".

The timing of the licence application is unclear. The elections have brought such massive political changes that it will take some time for the new Government to make its intentions known in the ICT sector. However the consortium’s spokeperson is looking forward to a positive response:" We are optimistic that the consortium should receive a license subsequent to the statutory 60 day gazette listing".

According to a source close to those involved in the process, Kenya’s regulator CCK has informally given a positive reaction. According to this source:"CCK has had it "up-to-here" with Telkom Kenya and wants to teach it a lesson." Apparently the entire licensing and compliance department has been put on "stand-by" to process the consortium application as quickly as possible.

In our last Kenya special (issue 88), key players in the market told us that they believed that without the limitations imposed by Jambonet’s monopoly, the internet subscriber base could grow as large as 60,000-100,000 from its current estimated base of 30,000. Asked what the consortium believed the impact would be, a spokesperson responded:"We should see a quantum leap in the quantity, quality and reach of the Internet as Telkom Kenya have always been a bottleneck holding back true growth and development".

And what of Telkom Kenya’s fate? Described as Kenya’s "ruined telecoms company" by the London Economist, its management must now surely await their future with some trepidation. If the Government is decisive it will appoint a new management (either putting in a completely new senior management team or external management contractors) tasked with preparing the company for early privatisation. It will be interesting to see whether the Government has the political courage to do this once it learns the scale of the revenues the "golden goose" produces. However to leave it in place would be to encourage the kind of endemic corruption that the new President has vowed to root out. This will provide a clear first test for the new Government in ICT policy terms. We are watching with interest.