Central African Backbone project looks set to connect Africa’s fibre free triangle

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Whilst there have been announcements about an increasing number of African countries building cross-border fibre links being built, politically-troubled countries like Chad and Central African Republic have missed out on the party. This week Central African Republic announced that it would be implementing the World Bank-backed Central African Backbone. Russell Southwood looks at what’s planned.

Central African Republic was the one of the few countries which seemed to have no plans to create a fibre link to its nearest international landing station (SAT3) in Cameroon. That all changed this week with an announcement by the Secretary-General of the country’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunications who said it would be implementing a World Bank-backed fibre project dubbed the Central African Backbone.

Initially it will link Cameroon, Central African Republic and Chad but there are long-term plans to extend links to Niger, Nigeria, Sudan (currently engaged in an undeclared war with Chad), Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe and Congo-Brazzaville.

The idea first saw the light of day at a meeting of Heads of State of the regional body CEMAC and a feasibility study was subsequently funded by the World Bank and the African Development Bank. The idea was to lower the costs of communications for countries that have been paying for relatively expensive international satellite connections. The World Bank will provide FCFA11 billion in loans but the project is open to other investors. The new route will link up with the Cameroonian national fibre backbone operated by Camtel: it has just signed a contract for Chinese financing of a 3,200 kms national backbone.

Interest in the Central African Backbone fed off the fact that there is an oil pipeline from Doba in south-west Chad to the coast in Cameroon. Along this pipeline between Doba and Yaounde is fibre and the operating company gave rights over spare capacity to the Cameroonian Government, who in turn gave it to the incumbent Camtel. The latter does not appear to have done very much with it. Indeed, there is still a 273 kms gap between the Cameroonian capital Yaounde and the SAT3 landing station at Douala. Also as Camtel’s SAT3 prices are highest on the route, it has little or no incentive to do much to encourage new traffic.

The Central African Backbone would fill in the gap to the Camtel SAT3 landing station and extend from Doba in Chad to the capital Ndjamena, a distance of 640 kms. In addition, there would be a branch from Maidougou in Cameroon to the Central African Republic’s capital of Bangui and two spurs out along the way to Bozoum and Carnot.

All of this is good news for the three countries concerned. However, the Achilles heel of the project is who exactly will be responsible for building and operating such an ambitious network over some very challenging terrain.

None of the three Government-owned incumbents (Camtel in Cameroon, Socatel in the CAR and Sotelchad) has much of a reputation in this field. The last time Camtel was to be privatised, only one buyer turned up and the process was cancelled. There have been discussions about separating out the wholesale backbone operations of Camtel to create a new company but this does not look promising.

So why not open out the process to other operators and potential investors? There are a number of private companies who already have operations they would like to connect along these routes. For if this opening up to the private sector does not happen, the danger is that projects like the Central African Backbone will remain on the drawing board.