Fresh Storm Brews Over Uganda’s National Fibre Optic Cable Project

Internet

The government has ditched technical safeguards for proper construction and functioning of the multi-billion national optic fibre backbone infrastructure, according to a report in the Daily Monitor.

Our investigations show that the original October 2006 turnkey contract between the government and Huawei Technologies Ltd, a Chinese Company, has already been altered three times, the latest being on August 18, 2009 under which some crucial provisions on quality standards have been removed.

Key requirements dropped include pre-shipment inspection to certify quality of cables and other materials in countries of origin and a provision to inter the fibre cables in ducts conveyed through trenches at least 1.5 metres deep from road surface. Officials have okayed a trench depth of between 0.8-1 metre.

Payments, which under the original contract, were made in block percentages after completion of agreed works have been revised to be cleared in phases per incremental works.

Under the latest amendment, Huawei Technologies has been allowed to use $715, 679 (Shs1.4b) to buy some 3,800 wooden poles on which to run onshore sections of the National Data Transmission Backbone and E-Government Infrastructure (NBI/EGI). This, industry experts say, would render the installations vulnerable to vandalism.

It has emerged that the ICT ministry has overturned a recommendation by its IT specialists - which Permanent Secretary Jimmy Saamanya had earlier endorsed - that the higher version, bigger-capacity G.655 96 core cable be used to network the country in subsequent phases of the project instead of G.652 24 core cables.

This followed information given to civil servants that the cost of the lower-capacity 24 core cable, which Huawei Technologies currently supplies at $3, 200 (Shs6m) per kilometer, has over the past couple of years tumbled on the world market on the backdrop of rapid technological innovations.

Daily Monitor understands that another Chinese Company, in May last year, notified the ICT Ministry that it could sell each kilometer-long 24 core cable cheaply at $1, 400 (Shs2.6m), enabling government to save $1, 800 (Shs3.4m) per unit. No decision was taken on the proposal.

In an interview on January 21, the pioneer ICT Minister Ham Mulira, whose team negotiated the first contract, said the lower 2009 price quotations for the 24-core fibre cable is because technology changes fast and overtime, earlier products turn cheaper.

"These are different generations of technology and since 2006 (when the turnkey contract was signed), prices have dropped," he said. He, however, would not say why a provision was not embedded in the original contract to accommodate the anticipated price fluctuations. Official records show that ICT ministry technocrats had warned that phase I cables were laid in shallow trenches (compromising its safety and lifespan); backfilling was incomplete and Mark Stones missing to identify routing of the infrastructure for protection.

Dan Alinage, the Uganda National Roads Authority spokesperson, has confirmed that at the very minimum, all utility/service providers laying underground infrastructure, should bore trenches 1.5 metres deep from the road, not ground, surface. "A bitumen road, done well, has a thickness of one metre. If underground cables are buried in a shallow way, they could be destroyed during maintenance of the road," he said, adding: "The trenches should be dug 15 metres from the middle of the road."

In an October 29, 2009 Internal Memo to PS Saamanya, a copy of which Daily Monitor has seen, Simon Peter Onyango, then head of the Project Implementation Unit, wrote: "The sections [of the cable] in the swamps have not been well entrenched. Secondly, the cable in these swamps is lying in water. This has a negative effect on the cable. Effort should be made to keep the cable out of water by laying in two concentric pipes."

This newspaper has learnt that some Ministry of ICT officials around September last year abruptly halted their technical staff from carrying out field surveys to ascertain the appropriate routing, in effect the actual cost, of the communication infrastructure under phase II to connect the countryside, except West Nile.

The decision has reportedly strained working relations between technocrats, who on the one hand feel sidelined/undermined and the decision-makers on the hand, emboldened by long service and experience.

When we tried to reach PS Saamanya to clarify on the emerging issues about the NBI/ENI, his secretary referred us to the Ministry spokesperson, Geoffrey David Kiirya, who advised us to e-mail the enquiries.

However when this newspaper telephoned him on January 13, a day after the e-mail was sent, Mr Kiirya said he had sought, but failed, to get responses from respective officers and "So, I have no comment".

Dr Mulira, now a presidential advisor on ICT, said in Thursday's interview that like "all projects", phase I of the NBI/ENI project constructed under his watch could have had "some flaws" but Uganda in the first place had no say in choosing the contractor, picked by the Chinese government; the project's financer. He, however, said he had confidence Huawei Technologies would do a clean job on the infrastructure to last 5-100 years.

"When a foreign government gives assistance of that kind, the sourcing of the contractor and procurements are not done locally here," Dr Mulira said, highlighting the handicaps of bilateral lending.He added: "The optic fibre cable is a benefit to the country in this digital age. It's something that should be welcomed and any mishaps will be dealt with [during maintenance] but these should not obscure the objectives of the project."

Information gleaned from ICT Ministry website says the project, whose phase II reportedly commenced discreetly in the wake of a parliamentary freeze, is to "put in place optic fibre infrastructure countrywide to enhance connectivity and transmission of data, voice and video communication".

The government, represented by Communications and Broadcasting Infrastructure chief, Godfrey Kibuuka and Fan Siyong, the country managing director of Huawei Technologies Company signed the original $127.9 million (Shs243b), inclusive of a $21.3 million (Shs40.5b) 'book entry' tax, for installation of the 2,122-kilometre NBI/ENI facility to boost local Internet capacity.

The idea being that local bandwidth for electronic communication will be expanded and access to Internet services made cheaper, faster and more efficient across the country. This way, government business could be conducted on line, saving time and costs. Other benefits would include real time on-line consultancy for things such as tele-medicine or auditing books of accounts of foreign multinational companies from the comfort of one's room here.