Burundi carriers form Africa’s first national infrastructure consortium to develop fibre backbone

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One of Africa’s smallest countries is pioneering the use of a carriers’ consortium to develop its national fibre backbone and international links with help from the World Bank. Burundi Backbone Systems will oversee the development of a 1,200 kms backbone and several new international fibre links connecting the country to its neighbours in the next 18 months.

The consortium brings together as shareholders the four main fixed and mobile operators (incumbent Onatel; Leo, formerly U-Com, part of Telecel Globe; Africell, owned by V-Tel and Palestinian Paltel; and Econet) and an ISP (CBI Net). The two main mobile players are Onamob, the incumbent’s mobile subsidiary, with an estimated 600,000 subscribers and Leo with 400,000 subscribers.

The D-Gs and CEOs of the shareholders make up the Board of the Consortium and will appoint the senior management team. David Easum, formerly of Telecel Globe, has been appointed as Interim CEO.

The World Bank contibution to the capital project means that it will provide coverage throughout the country, laid alongside road routes, with 26 different nodes. It will be 18 months before the network is materially complete. However, before that date, the important international fibre link to the Rwandan border post will be completed.

This has been the primary reason that the operators have got involved in the project. Currently all international traffic goes via satellite, with a small element via microwave to Rwanda. Currently operators paying between US$2,500-3,000 per mbps per month. The Consortium will not actually sell bandwidth as this will be done by the participating shareholders.

The headline international price is likely to be between US$1,000-1,500 but some of the partners may get capacity at nearer to US$500. Two of the shareholders – Onatel and Leo – have shares in EASSy (through WIOCC) and also have shares in its inland vehicle, the East African Backbone System. These shareholdings will form part of the two companies’ equity in the consortium. National fibre prices will not be distance-based.

There are potentially five international border crossing links. There will be two connections with Rwanda in the North and in the North West of the country one or two connections to DRC. Finally in the North-East, close to one of the Rwanda connections, is another connection to a fibre ring in Tanzania.

Meanwhile on the other side of the continent, Maroc Telecom is filling in a crucial cross-border fibre link between Morocco and Mauritania. This move forms part of a broader two-stage project with the aim of linking Maroc Telecom's African operations together (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Gabon) and to provide them with onwards international capacity (via the Mediterranean fibre cables).

The first stage of the project (being rolled out) is to connect Mauritania to Morocco via a terrestrial fibre link. Maroc Telecom is currently rolling out a link from Laayoune in the south of Morocco to Nouakchott the capital of Mauritania. This link is 60% completed and will be ready for use by the end of this year. The length of this link is about 3,000km (over 2,000 km in Morocco and about 700 km in Mauritania).

The second stage of the project is to extend this link to Burkina Faso via Mali. This is still at the feasibility study stage. This may all form part of Maroc Telecom’s broader strategy of making further acquisitions in Africa and will almost certainly give them cheaper capacity than is currently available via SAT3 in either Dakar or Abidjan.