Balancing Act (London)

East Africa: Indian Ocean Islands Agree a Scheme to Connect Themselves By Fibre

London — A meeting of the members of the Indian Ocean Commission in Addis Ababa last week decided to give the go-ahead to connect their island-members by fibre to each other and the rest of the world. The connecting cable would be available on non-discriminatory terms and under a low-cost, high volume regime.

The project has its origins in a consultants' study started in mid 2007 and completed at the end of last year. The study looked at the likely demand from the different island members and the technical and financial feasibility of the project. The Commission has six island members: Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion (a French region) and Seychelles.

Mauritius and Reunion are both connected to the SAT3/SAFE cable and in both places there has been Government and regulatory action to lower the price of access to the cable. Although an early routing for the EASSy project involved a route to India via Seychelles, this was later dropped. However, Comoros has also been mentioned as places that might be connected by the EASSy cable.

The fibre project has two clear purposes: firstly, to connect all of the unconnected islands and secondly, to provide a level of redundancy to potential users. On occasion, the SAFE cable has been broken during bad weather.

The timing of the build is particularly critical for the island members if they are to be able to join up with the EASSy and SEACOM cables that are being built down the eastern seaboard of the continent.

Demand for such a cable varies enormously between the different islands. Although both Mauritius and Reunion have small populations, they are significantly more developed than the other islands. For example, there is island-wide Wi-Max coverage provided by a company called Nomad. Clearly, cheaper international wholesale bandwidth would lower retail prices and increase both the overall number of users and levels of usage.

However, the biggest potential long-term demand is probably likely to come from Madagascar that has alongside its fellow island members, a comparatively large population. The smaller islands are more problematic but under the status quo of satellite provision, prices are unlikely to fall much and therefore demand would stay much lower.

But even on the basis of increased demand, the project would make little or no financial sense for a private operator. Therefore the project's initiators are looking towards donor funding as their main source of financing.

The intention is to create under the IoC umbrella a cable system that would be made available on non-discriminatory terms and with a low-cost, high-volume regime in place. The wider strategic aim of the project would be drive development not only of the telecom sector in the islands but also the downstream user industries.

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