NIGER - BIGGER INTERNET LINK AWAITS END OF SONITEL PRIVATISATION

11 January 2002

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Niger has experienced steady but unspectacular growth of its internet user base. Its state telco, SONITEL is being privatised and this has led to an investment freeze. Once the process is completed it will be free to implement its planned 2 megabit link. SONITEL remains the monopoly provider of international connectivity until 2004 and there is not yet an independent regulator. Nevertheless Sadou Soloké, Manager of SONITEL’s national node (who describes what’s happened in the article below) remains upbeat about future progress.

 

The history of the internet in Niger dates back to November 1996. At that date, the International telecommunications company of Niger (STIN) concluded an agreement with its partner France Cables and Radio, a subsidiary of France Telecom, for the development of one national internet node in Niamey.

 

In its first version the node was rather modest and the company soon realised this. The 9600 bits per second encapsulated in an X.25 protocol and on an analogical link quickly showed its limit when it came to navigating on the internet.

 

STIN reacted some months later by investing in VSAT technology which connected it henceforth through a 64 kilobits by a second digital link to its French supplier of access by 24 April 1997, which allowed internet users from Niger to participate in a more significant way to the networked world by getting electronic addresses and making local web sites.

 

Still once again that link soon turned out to be insufficient ; then STIN having merged with the branch of the ex-OPT (that handled telecoms) became the SONITEL (Socété Nigérienne de Télécommunications) and widened the link to an un-encapsulated 128 kilobits pure internet protocol this time. The 128 kilobits quickly exceeded but other constraints on Sonitel (privatisation process started) delayed further promised increases until July 2001, the date at which the international bandwidth was tripled. The privitasion negotiations suspended investment and the company was unable to sign for a modernisation of its infrastructure with a 2 megabit link to be in place by end of November or end of December of this year at the latest.

 

The internet is present in all sectors of life in Niger from the administration, to international organisations, diplomatic representations, projects and programmes of development, NGOs, or private individuals in Niamey the capital city as well as everywhere inside the country where automatic telephone exists.

 

Sonitel at first implemented a flat fee of 80.000 f cfa per month that has now become a 50 francs per minute rate during business hours and 25 francs per minute otherwise. The company hopes to offer better services at lower rates as soon as the upgrade is done. It has so far participated in all local events and campaigns that promote the internet in Niger, like the Internet fiestas since 1999.

 

Sonitel has about 20,000 fixed lines in Niger. But in internet terms it has only about 1900 dial up Internet accounts and administers 1600 e-mail accounts. Taken together with the 24 leased lines (of which some are used for Cyber cafés) an estimate of internet users in Niger would be somewhere between 3-5000.

 

There is some awareness of the usefulness and use of the internet at decision making level in the country. The lack of infrastructure in rural areas could hamper its use in those areas but digital community rural radios and telecentres could be part of the approach to build awareness in rural areas.

 

One of the early ICT partners in Niger has been the UNDP who sponsor Niger’s participation in a lot of regional conferences and local initiatives. It has started SDNP Niger, and is also one of the initiators of the Rural Radios network. Then there is the Francophonie¹s INTIF which sponsored participation of engineers and participants from Niger to local training on libre software, to regional conferences on the creation of the African Registry, Afrinic, or the creation of a LINUX laboratory for training in general in Niamey.

 

Other ICT partners of Niger include th eprivate sector, AGRHYMET (Agriculture and Hydrology and Meteorological Regional Institute), the French IRD, the Continental ACMAD, the EAMAC and the Abdou Moumouni University which at different levels and in all sectors are helping promote ICTs.

 

Sonitel has a sole monopoly on international networks until the end of December 2004 in principle. So it is still possible to establish private ISPs provided they use Sonitel as their connectivity provider. There is no independent regulator yet in the telecommunications sector and Sonitel manages the national NIC.

 

I personally have an optimistic view of the development of the internet in Niger as soon as we can invest in the the essential constituents of ICT that are the national phone service and infrastructure, the equipment in rural areas and especially the building of capacity in that sector, particularly for deployment, maintenance but more importantly for content provision.

 

A special thanks to Anne-Rachel Inne for translating this article.