DRC: The enemies of promise gather to throw away the digital opportunity

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Last Friday the WACS cable was lit up at the DRC’s landing station in Muanda. This should be a cause for great optimism but the country is run by the enemies of promise so do not expect anything to happen quickly. Russell Southwood reflects on how the digital opportunity might be thrown away by this country’s politicians.

The Chairman of WACS sent a signal to say that the landing station at Muanda was ready for service to the Congolese Minister of Post, Telecommunications and New Technologies of Information and Communication, Tryphon Kin-Kiey Mulumba waiting to kick off the launch ceremony. Congolese newspaper La Prosperte wrote “Nothing can still spoil the party”.

In a piece jaw-dropping hyperbole the Minister said:” This is the end of an ambitious road strewn with obstacles and the DRC has won this battle hands down. The country of Joseph Kabila has therefore made its entry into the club of major world powers as having the powerful tool, internet'' broadband''. He forget to mention that an official from the incumbent OCPT was jailed for diverting the money destined to pay the contractors to build the landing station.

The obstacle that has not yet been cleared for this “onwards and upwards” path to progress is how the fibre capacity at the landing station will get to Kinshasa, let alone anywhere across this huge country, which is the size of Europe. The Chinese have supposedly financed and built the fibre link from Muanda to Kinshasa but no-one knows whether it is operational or not.

Some idea of this slightly surreal idea digital future for DRC can perhaps be understood by knowing that to go by road from Kinshasa to Muanda – a distance of some 450 kms – takes the best part of two days. There is tarmac road as far as the port of Matadi but most people break the journey there and take the next day to complete the route on un-tarmaced roads. Quite how maintenance will be carried out on this link in future is anyone’s guess.

Another enemy of promise is the “ghost” incumbent OCPT which has been given responsibility for the landing station. Like its twin cousin in Liberia, Liberia Telecoms, OCPT is perhaps most famous for what it doesn’t do. Unlike most incumbent telcos and even Liberia Telecoms, it doesn't seem to operate any fixed lines. Most people who have a fixed line have got it through the mobile operators.

Understandably given the large scale fraud over the landing station, the mobile operators have rather large “trust” issues in terms of getting their bandwidth from OCPT. No-one in the market is currently offering prices on the new fibre capacity at any volume. Indeed it may well be that Goma or Lubumbashi (by Liquid Telecom) is connected to fibre before the capital Kinshasa. So Lubumbashi may be connected to the Internet and send messages instantaneously anywhere in the world but it takes 18 days to get there by road from the capital.

But once the fibre gets to Kinshasa, the problems simply get worse. There is a certain amount of trenching going on in Kinshasa but no sign of what you’d normally expect from fibre laying like conduits or shields. Again, the scale of Kinshasa means that it can take well over an hour to get from one side to another on the indifferent city road network.

The country is variously described as having 4000-5000 kms of roads for a country the size of Europe. In many places, everyday goods including fuel for generators are hand-wheeled on adapted bicycles.

The result is that many places have mobile voice and Internet connections but these are small islands connected by satellite. Up near the border with South Sudan, Dungu has a single BTS operated by Vodacom. It’s somewhere between being a large village and a small town but it is off what fragments of electricity grid exists in DRC.

There is however a single Internet café but prices are high because of all the power and supply problems described above. Like the current landing station, there are the Inga dams that have a staggeringly high capacity (enough to power almost all of Africa) but are operating at almost nothing.

Now is the moment to pause and acknowledge that the Belgians plundered this country and left it without any educated elite, let alone a middle class. The Belgians spent precious little on infrastructure. Impossible national boundaries and civil war has made this huge country all but ungovernable. However, this is a very rich country with a lot of poor people made poorer by its kleptocratic governing elite.

Kinshasa University which was designed to cater for 15,000 students is now hosting 50,000 students: many of them are forced to look in through the windows of crowded lecture halls to get a chance to be taught.

The saddest phrase I heard when talking to people about the country was:”I don’t see anyone deeply interested in progress.” The political class is greedy and corrupt and those characteristics set the tone throughout every level of Government. Nigeria seems almost a model of good governance by comparison.

This is “commission-taking” where nothing gets done rather than to “speed things up”. Politicians are keen on laying obstacles for everyone in general that require payment but for the telecoms sector in particular which is perceived of as a wealthy cow that can be milked. In our heart we’d like to see progress being made but our head tells us that it won’t be if it’s left to any body that is part of Government.

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