Since 9 March 2006, an informal African ‘open access task force’ – made up of NGOs and small and medium sized ISPs – was initiated to lobby for the implementation of an open access model in internet infrastructure. The task force is currently mobilised to make the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy) ‘easy’, affordable and open, writes Frederick Noronha of APCNews. Members of the Task Force last week attended a meeting organised by NEPAD between EASSy consortium members and Government stakeholders.

Vincent Waiswa Bagiire, director of the Kampala-based Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), says his network is planning national-level EASSy workshops to inform people of what is happening and to allow them to have their say. These workshops will take place on the following dates: Tanzania (20th April 2006); Uganda (28th April 2006); Zambia (10th May 2006); and Rwanda (25th May 2006). For further details contact: Vincent Waiswa Bagiire, CIPESA on: vincent@cipesa.org

"We would like all members of the task force to be active in their respective countries. These [events] again will be held under the auspices of APC, Balancing Act and CIPESA," he told APCNews in an online interview early in April.

It is expected that the members of the ‘open access task force’ will invite national networks and organisations namely; I-Network Uganda, SWOPnet Tanzania, OneWorld, E-brain and the Rwanda Information Technology Authority (RITA). Bagiire anticipates that, in addition, the task force could do some research to determine various perspectives for stakeholders -governments, civil society and the private sector.

Asked about his gut-level feeling of past events he added: "It is too early to judge the shape of the debate, but it's all positive. Whichever model is adopted, we, as civil society, will be happy that we played our role in informing a wider audience." Having said that, Bagiiire recognises that much work is still to be done, “it is important to note that there is a lack of awareness about the cable system."

ISPs are nervous about EASSy since they have received no clear answers about who is allowed in the club and who will be left out of the EASSy consortium. APCNews discussed the issue with Eric M.K Osiakwan, the executive secretary of AfrISPA (www.afrispa.org), a continental Association of African Internet Service Provider Associations.

"Why do investors need a license to invest in the EASSy cable? There is generally no need for a license to make an investment; hence the EASSy consortium needs to decouple investment in the cable from access and operating a landing station in-country."

There was some debate over this issue among key players such as telecommunication majors and national governments, as well as civil society organisations.

The sensitive issue could represent a key to the success of EASSy in terms of affordability and accessibility. If investors such as small ISPs are not granted the right to invest in the cable project, they might not be able to secure service from a landing station (not directly at the source from the submarine cable). This situation could create monopolistic or oligopolistic structures to the benefit of telecommunication companies and thereby, imperil affordable access to the internet, especially in landlocked countries.

Osiakwan had then commented: "This is an opportunity for investment and involvement in the EASSy cable which is trying to respond to the Open Access structure that the World Bank and other constituents have proposed."

He notes that achieving affordable bandwidth "still remains a major concern for Africa". He was part of a workshop in Senegal recently - organised by the Open Society Institute of West Africa (OSIWA) - which called access to telecommunication services such as voice, data and the internet "a basic human right".

In a communication he sent out, a copy of which was made available to APCNews, he said he had met with a Senior Investment Officer from the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC - within the World Bank) East Africa office who had indicated that if a consortium of ISPs can form a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) with some equity investment from the players, the IFC would loan them some more money to invest in the EASSy project.

"The reason why we need to come together and have a big share is that it would give us significant say, rather than individual members having small shares," as he put it. Since Osiakwan announced his colours, AfrISPA has engaged in an active process of organising an ISP consortium to invest in EASSy.

“Significant investment in the EASSy cable would give us a stake in making the rules of how the cable is operated; ensure that networks in Africa can trade their portion of the cable on the international market for internet protocol (IP) access, and ensure opening of the market in some countries with landing points, so that members of the consortium with international gateway license can trade their stake locally,” he argues.

APC News