Maintenance and up-time – the Achilles Heel of Africa’s new fibre network revolution

Top Story

The reach of Africa’s fibre networks is extending relentlessly in ways that would have been barely imaginable ten years ago. The speed and the capacity of the new fibre networks have made the use of them more essential, both by businesses and individuals. Gone are the days when the like’s of Burkina Faso’s Onatel could shut the Internet down for three days with only a “sorry everyone” ad in the newspaper. New speed and capacity have encouraged Service Level Agreements that measure delivery. But this week’s news of the burning down of the SAT3 landing station in Benin raises serious questions. Russell Southwood looks at the root of the problems.

This week we learned that the SAT3 landing station burnt down in Benin because of an electrical fault that started a fire. There seem to have been no security personnel at the landing station, neither was there a fire alarm to alert the staff of Benin Telecom. This is an accident that should not have happened: wiring needs maintaining.

As a result of this accident, Niger has no direct access to its usual landing station and Togo will have to divert its traffic completely to Ghana. Benin itself will presumably have to use the Suburban Telecom link into Nigeria.

However, this is not the first time Benin Telecom has shot itself in the foot through failure to maintain its networks. The Parakou fibre link to Niger has always been unreliable but Niger’s incumbent Sonitel relies on it for its international fibre connectivity. Benin Telecom’s failure to repair the link in a timely fashion has meant that Sonitel maintenance staff have crossed the border to effect the repairs.

Last year’s trip to Nigeria revealed for us that there were several links to Nigerian cities (some with more than one fibre link) that had only 80% up-time. As we have observed before, that’s just over two months in every year when the link is down: this is not a fibre service but the equivalent of a motorway that is closed every 5 days of the year.

This is not a problem that affects only Government-owned incumbents but they are disproportionately responsible for some of the worst failures as the news above demonstrates. The problem for customers and operators in Africa’s new and shiny fibre future is that unlike with roads, you cannot simply leave the potholes there for another day. Everybody on the network is affected by the weakest link on the network.

The pragmatic solution is to ensure that there is redundancy. Niger is a country that despite being connected by international fibre, is still reliant on expensive satellite bandwidth for moments like these. The easiest thing to do would be to build another link across the border to Nigeria but there is not enough demand for any single carrier to make it happen. The operators need to get together as a JV consortium and make it happen. Because Sonitel’s link suffers from two problems: firstly, for reasons not of their making, it’s unreliable and secondly, it’s expensive because as the only international link operator, Sonitel is extracting every last cent from its part of the route to the border.

The wider problem here is the remaining monopolies on international and cross-border traffic and the lack of competition to keep the incumbents up to the mark in terms of service and maintenance. In Togo and Benin, the Government owned incumbents enjoy a monopoly on national and international connectivity.

To be fair, the Government in Benin has tried to sell Benin Telecom but failed because they were disappointed by the price. It is not hard to see that there is some connection between the attitude to its assets and the price potential buyers believe it is worth. In Burkina Faso, the privatized Onatel enjoys a monopoly on national and international connectivity which encourages the same behavior.

If it is human to neglect long-term tasks like maintenance and up-keep, then Africa is more human than many other parts of the world. But if it is to succeed in becoming a different kind of continent, then it will need to pay more attention to these things in the future.

Stop Press: Two stories seemed to be competing to be the Top Story this week: the arrest of Glo’s Mike Adenuga by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission  and Google’s allegedly contacting Mocality customers based on IP Address and User Agent information.

The announcement of Mike Adenuga’s arrest (along with others) turned out to be the work of hackers as part of the protest movement against the removal of fuel subsidies. On Google, the company has made no public response as we were going to press so read Mocality’s side of events here:


To follow the exchanges about this news, you need to be on Twitter. Follow us on @BalancingActAfr

An Agenda for 2012 – Part 1

Videos from Balancing Act’s You Tube channel that will help you reflect on where your business is going this year:

Low cost base stations to lower network costs

Gerry Collins, Head of Business Development, Altobridge on its low cost, remote base station

Scott Bain, Director of Sales, Range Networks on Open BTS and low cost BTS for Africa

Content, content, content (and services)

Nadeem, Juma, CEO, Mobipay on m-payments and social media in Tanzania

Arvind Rao, CEO, OnMobile on comparisons between African and Indian mobile content

Sami Leino, COO, Spinlet on the launch of an "iTunes" for Africa

Widespread, low cost Internet access

Riyaz Bachani, CTO, Wananchi on its Wazi hot-spots partnership with Google

Making the Network cost-effective

Lance Dickerson, CEO, TIA Telecom on optimising African mobile networks