The end of the beginning: DRC plans ambitious infrastructure development

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For all the difficulties in Eastern Congo, the DRC has seen a number of recent developments that will form the beginning of a backbone development plan for the country. Canadian NGO Alternatives launched its extremely detailed feasibility study for a backbone plan and the Government has begun to look at some of the issues that will need to be addressed if it is to be implemented.

Called Etude de faisibilite pour une dorsale Internet ouverte en RDC, the report estimates that US$233 million (without redundancy) will be needed to build the country a network backbone, a sum that seems modest given the size of the country. It envisages a country-wide backbone of 5,467 kilometres, the largest sections being in the following provinces: Katanga (1463 kms); Bas Congo (813 kms) and Sud-Kivu (652 kms).

The report was launched in August at a meeting of 60-70 people, mainly drawn from Government. Michel Lambert from Alternatives told us he was “disappointed” that there were not more private sector attendees, particularly mobile operators but planned to have a meeting in September or October to take up the discussion specifically with them.

There should be greater interest as the main mobile operators are both carrying large amounts of traffic between places like Kinshasa and Lubumbashi and paying extremely large amounts in satellite fees to backhaul it. Even on fairly “back-of-the-envelope” calculations, the current fees being paid by a single operator on this route would probably justify this sort of capital expenditure.

Although the sum that needs to be raised to build the backbone seems large, the report suggests that it can built in phases, with each phase generating cash-flow to finance the next phase. A key phase would be the construction of a fibre to connect the country either to SAT3 amd/or WAFS or to EASSy on the other side of the continent, reducing the country’s overall connectivity bill. But as elsewhere in Africa, the report points to the need to combine the fibre plans of the power utility with wider national backbone plans.

A fibre route could go along transmission lines from the Inga project, both to the capital Kinshasa and to the hydo-electric power stations close to the mining town of Kolwezi and to another one near Likazi. Similarly it would be possible to deploy along some of the existing railway lines, particularly in the south-east of the country. The Congolese power utility SNEL has plans to construct power transmission lines to the North and North East of the country with fibre pairs for management purposes and additional pairs could easily be added.

The report also contains backing for the idea of a municipal network in Kinshasa. Interestingly one of the researchers on the project is the new Minister of Industry for Kinshasa province and is interested in seeing whether this project could be funded out of the Province’s own budget.

Probably the biggest hurdle is who would implement such a plan. The report envisages that the network would be open access for all carriers. As with several countries coming out of civil wars (Liberia is a typical example), the incumbent OCPT is effectively a shell. It has fewer than 10,000 lines in Kinshasa, many of which do not function well. The Government has held talks with buyers in the past to try and find a strategic investor, even on occasions holding out a renewed monopoly (including the international gateway) as a carrot. However, when it came to the cheque-signing moment, there have been no takers.

However, the Government is determined to revive OPCT as the minutes of the Governmental meeting between 6-18 August 2007 make clear. It calls for the restructuring of OCPT and Renatelsat (the state satellite agency) to give them the means to make them competitive. Hereby lies the flaw in the plan for if OCPT has responsibility for a publicly provided backbone then the sceptics will rightly mutter that it will never happen.

Rumours are already circulating that contracts are on the point of being granted to “the Chinese” (for which read, Huawei and/or ZTE). But this does not really explain how OCPT can become the effective implementation agency for large financial project that will be trusted to supply reliable bandwidth by a competitive private sector. Perhaps only some form of public-private partnership can achieve that on a “carriers’ carrier” basis for the only alternative is for the large private sector players to build their own infrastructure.

But even if they could each convince themselves to take on parts of this task (Kinshasa-Lubumbashi anyone?), it seems a tremendous waste of investment that could better be spent on rolling out to customers in more places if a backbone could both be financed and operated by others. It’s one thing mobile operators going into infrastructure in a plum market like South Africa but quite another facing both the physical challenges and political risks of DRC. So even if the Chinese build it on loan terms, there will need to be a body that can be trusted to both operate and deliver it effectively. Thus far, as in several other African countries, this remains the missing piece and can only be solved by more imaginative public-private approaches to the problem.