Google’s Project Link commits to building 1,200 kms of metronet fibre in three key Ghanaian cities and changes the pricing model

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Working quietly “below the radar” Google has rolled out metronet fibre in Uganda and Ghana to break through the market barriers that are preventing lower cost retail bandwidth. Russell Southwood spoke to Project Link’s Estelle Akofio-Sowah who heads up its operations in Ghana.

Google has committed itself to building 1,200 kms of metronet fibre in Accra, Tema and Kumasi: the majority of the fibre will be rolled out in the Accra/Tema conurbation with 300 kms in Ghana’s second city Kumasi. Work started in June this year in Accra and Tema and on 2 October in Kumasi.

The network will be ready to accept customers in Q1, 2016:”It’s super early days but we want to bring customers on to the network (by that date) subject to the rains.”

The network offer comes with Service Level Agreements that will both offer international standards of uptime and refunds when these standards aren’t met, not something that Africa has been very familiar with:”These standards don’t exist in the market and you get cash back if we’re not achieving those SLAs.” Indeed this has happened on a small number of occasions with the Project Link operation in Kampala.

So how are these standards achieved where others fail to meet them?:”It’s the density of the network. Every customer site has access to at least two hubs and has its own fibre pair.”

The network is unequivocally a wholesale network and will not sell to retail, end-customers:”Our licence doesn’t allow us to sell to end users and we don’t want to compete with our customers. It’s the same in Uganda. What we’re addressing is the gap between the capacity at the sea shore and getting it to the base station.” Its customers are the mobile operators and the ISPs.

The operation is headed up Estelle Akofio-Sowah, an industry veteran. She ran internet café Busy Internet and then also ran its ISP before becoming Google’s Country Manager in Accra. As she jokes:”If anything goes wrong, I’m the throat to choke.”

As with the Kampala launch, Google is cagey about pricing but clear about how it’s changed the pricing model:”We won’t say (what the price is) right now. It’s a very competitive price.”

”Our pricing is very different from the (current) market. The typical model is a combination of distance and throughput. We want you to put more capacity through to customers. Ghana’s still only using 10% of the capacity available at the landing station. The throughput model makes the cost of getting this capacity to the customer prohibitive”.

“We do it based on the number of sites so whether it’s an E1 or an STM1 it’s the same charge. Within the metronet area, distance does not affect charges. Plus all customers get the same charges.”

So what’s the likely impact of all this going to be? Akofio-Sowah cites the example of Project Link’s existing work in Kampala. She says that one of its customers Afrimax (an LTE ISP partnered with Vodacom) was able to get to market in record time and has recently announced its 100,000th customer.

Two things are worth emphasizing here. Firstly, for an independent ISP in Sub-Saharan Africa to get this level of customers is almost unprecedented. Secondly, Afrimax owns Akofio-Sowah’s former ISP employer Busy Internet, bought out after she left. Thus far although there have been 3 LTE licences granted, only one – Surfline – has actually launched.

Akofio-Sowah is very clear about the point of all this investment:”We want our (wholesale) customers to be able to focus on their end-users and enable more services. We want to see a move from mainly email to video browsing, having your documents in the cloud and encouraging new online start-up applications. It’s about things like the Government’s efforts to register businesses online and getting more people online.”

In the Internet News story below - South Africa: MTN targets 'free loading' WhatsApp – MTN’s Mteto Nyati complains that the OTT providers like Google are essentially “free-riding” without investing. Perhaps if operators like MTN focused more on getting bandwidth to their customers and less on defending their incumbent position (and the de-facto monopoly rates that come with it) the future of the mass Internet in Africa would be that much closer.

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