Congo: “Fibre to the people” – how to make the best use of the new international capacity

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On September 12th, the ACE submarine fibre cable landed close to Banjul, the capital of the Gambia. Excitement and interest were high as you can see from the photos taken at the beach where the cable was pulled out of the sea (for the photos see Balancing Act’s website). The commercial launch of international fibre capacity will only start in July 2012 but the Gambia is already finalising the legal framework that will govern access to this new international capacity. Further down the west coast of Africa, Congo (Brazza) is still undecided as to how to deal with the international fibre capacity that will soon be on its doorstep.  Isabelle Gross looks at the some of the pitfalls that Congo has to avoid in order to make the best use of the forthcoming capacity.

Congo is among the 12 countries on the west coast of Africa that for the first time will have a landing station providing access to international fibre capacity. It is not a small thing for the country to get connected to the WACS submarine cable but in order to harvest its benefits, such as cheaper and faster Internet access, the Congolese government has still to sort out issues regarding the management and access to the international fibre capacity.

A look back over the history of the SAT3 submarine cable demonstrates that when the national incumbent manages the international capacity, the outcome is often less than optimal. With the exception of Sonatel in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire Telecom, and more recently Benin Telecom, most of the national incumbents never seemed to understand how to maximize (in terms of revenue) the use of the international capacity available on SAT3. Among those who have failed to make full use of the opportunities are Camtel in Cameroon, Gabon Telecom, and Nitel in Nigeria. For many years, their management of the international capacity on SAT3 has led to very high prices (well above US$5,000 per MB) and a sub-standard service. Nitel in Nigeria managed its capacity so badly that Suburban Telecoms, an infrastructure provider in Nigeria, built a cross border fibre link to Benin, and thus opened up a second Nigerian access point to SAT3 capacity via Benin Telecom.

The lessons from these failures are two-fold:
- the national incumbent is not necessarily the best entity to manage the upcoming international capacity efficiently
- monopoly management of the international fibre capacity helps to maintain artificially inflated high prices on international bandwidth

So what should Congo do? If it gives the management of the international capacity to Congo Telecom, Congolese Internet users can say bye bye to the idea of cheaper and faster Internet at any time in the near future. Congo Telecom has neither the technical expertise nor the commercial skills (the level of the debts of the company is a good indicator of its incompetence) to manage the new international fibre capacity properly. If the Congolese Government wants to achieve its goal of seizing all the opportunities that international fibre capacity brings, it will need the political will to make some tough decisions. At present, the goal of bringing the Internet to the people seems far away. A basic 64KB connection still costs on average US$100 per month. By comparison, the average salary of a civil servant is between US$160 and US$200 per month.

So how can Congo and other African countries avoid a situation in which consumers pay artificially inflated prices for the new international fibre capacity? In countries like Nigeria, which will soon have access to 5 international submarine cables (SAT3, Glo 1, Main One, WACS and ACE), competition between the various providers has already pushed down prices and this trend is likely to continue. Today international bandwidth comes for as little as US$300 per MB per month. In contrast, in Congo and in many of the 12 countries on the West coast of Africa that will get access to international fibre capacity for the first time, access will remain limited to one submarine cable, and relying on competition among providers to drive prices down won’t work. It is therefore up to the Congolese Government to take the decisions (e.g. putting in place an open access legal framework) that will best serve to the goal of putting the new international fibre capacity to work to support the development of the ICT sector in the country. The best way of achieving this would seem to be to introduce an open access model that will guarantee equal, transparent and non-discriminatory access to international capacity for all the players in the local market.

With 5 submarine cables that will soon all be live, international capacity along the west coast of Africa will be plentiful. It is therefore unlikely that more cables will be built in the coming years. For Congo and some of the other 12 countries, it is important not to miss the boat when it comes to making the most efficient use of the new international fibre capacity.