South Sudan: Government planning fibre link connections to lower the cost of connectivity

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South Sudan’s Juba and Eritrea’s Asmara were the only two African capitals without plans to introduce international fibre links. Now the South Sudan Government is moving towards working out what its plans will be. Russell Southwood looks at plans in the wings and what the options are.

South Sudan’s Government (through the ministry, MoTPS  and the Presidential Commission on Infrastructure) is now beginning to address one of its key communications infrastructure problems: the lack of international fibre connections for its capital Juba. Its three mobile operators (MTN, Vivicell and Zain) and its ISPs currently use expensive satellite connectivity, which the Government estimates it costs US$32,300 a month. 

Zain is the Kuwaiti owned company that sold its African operations to Airtel and Vivicell is locally owned but has had Lebanese investment. We understand that Zain imported fibre and equipment to roll out national routes but was told to stop by the Government. Furthermore, we’ve been told that one of the mobile companies has a microwave link down to the border. MTN also issued a tender to build a national backbone.

In an announcement at the end of August, Juma Stephen Lugga, Undersecretary at the Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services said the Government was looking to build three fibre routes to Juba: from Kenya’s Mombasa via Lokichoggio; from Tanzania via Uganda to the border at Nimule; from Djibouti via Ethiopia’s Gambella. There are clearly no plans to connect to northern Sudan. Lugga said that initially it will fund the building of a microwave link (which would cost US$10 million), after which the fibre routes would be put in place.

The World Bank and the African Development Bank are in discussion with the Ministry to look at how they might make a substantial grant for among other things both national and international fibre links. The World Bank usually looks for Private Public Partnerships based on open access principles and this case looks no different from any other. Later in September it will enter into dialogue with the Government and the private sector to look at options for further study.

During his announcement at the end of August Juma Stephen Lugga, Undersecretary at the Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services said the Government was looking at Chinese finance for these plans. From a separate source we understand that a Government representative has visited one of the Chinese infrastructure providers and that informally the Chinese have offered a loan of US$5 billion.

There are clearly a couple of potential options for the development of both the national and international fibre networks. These include:

* A Chinese-funded build-out by Huawei or ZTE. Both can be very capable infrastructure builders. However, the choice of this option is haunted by the experience of Uganda. The fibre network built there was not dug deep enough and the loan appeared expensive for what was delivered. It seems that the heart of the problem was the lack of capacity to manage the Chinese contractors effectively. The same circumstance would also be found in South Sudan where capacity of this kind is in short supply and there is no incumbent in which such capacity might be found. However, once built, it is unclear who would operate the network: the Chinese on a Build and Transfer basis? A new state entity? A local private entity with links to the Government?

* World Bank financed fibre infrastructure options have been set up across a wide range of countries and have common elements. The private sector generally gets to sit on the board of the entity that will manage the fibre. Access to the fibre is on open access principles so that all operators get the same access and pricing. Its funding usually ensures that there is greater access: for example, they might insist that South Sudan’s 10 provincial capitals are all connected. However, at present there is only regular electricity in Juba so this may pose significant challenges. We understand that some of the mobile operators have agreed privately in principle to put up some of the funding for the international routes.

A number of potential network operators have put up plans to the Government and clearly there needs to be an open and transparent process for selecting whoever eventually gets to build and manage the network. Also there should be no confusion between the public interest and the interests of those in Government. 

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