London — In June this year, Liquid Telecom took over former Rwandan incumbent Rwandatel, absorbing all of its assets except its property. The company is headed up by former Rwandan Communications Minister Sam Nkusi who is bullish about its future prospects. Russell Southwood spent last week in Kigali and explains how the Rwandan telecoms and Internet landscape is changing and catches up with Liquid's Nkusi.
Rwanda's President Kagame has always had a policy line that said Rwanda would become an ICT hub in the East African region. Until a few years ago, this was largely policy rhetoric but there are now a number of elements falling into place that begin to give substance to the vision.
In infrastructure terms, the company Liquid Telecom bought has a 500 kms fibre network throughout what is by African standards a relatively small country and has a GPON network in Kigali. Says Nkusi:"We will be offering 10 Gbps as a minimum along all of that network."
Frustrated by its efforts to get the former incumbent to become the vehicle for national development, the Rwandan Government turned to the Koreans and asked in KTT to develop a new national fibre backbone that now covers all of the District centres and goes along the country's main roads. When complete, it will be 2,500 kms and most of it is now built and will soon be operational. In addition, MTN also has its own fibre network across the country, notably linking to its operation in Uganda and on to the landing station at Mombasa.
With all this activity, Nkusi says:"The infrastructure element's been solved. The bandwidth's been solved." But he says there are two outstanding issues:"The last mile and affordability."
The Government network is currently managed by government-owned BSC but soon the company will be sold to KTT and it will build an LTE network to complement the fibre network. This will mean that the fibre can then be connected to the towns and villages that lie off the main roads. In a similar vein to Kenya's proposed LTE network, it will be a wholesale network that will be shared by all of the country's three mobile operators: MTN, Airtel and Tigo.
Normally landlocked countries are at a disadvantage compared to their coastal counterparts but a combination of good fibre link choices to neighbors and some external funding from the World Bank means that wholesale international fibre prices are amongst the lowest in the region: some elements are below the US$100 per mbps level. It has fibre connections to Kenya (via Uganda) and to Tanzania and before long it will also connect to Tanzania through Burundi on a separate route.
Liquid Telecom telecoms operation in Rwanda is the bringing together of the business of the ISP it acquired when it bought KDN (Altech) and the former incumbent Rwabdatel. It is a mixed bag of almost every technology that has been tried over the last ten years. There is plain old copper fixed lines (12,000 subscribers), CDMA in the EVDO flavor, 16D and 16E WiMAX and ADSL. As Nkusi observes:"The only thing we don't have is GSM. But we will be leveraging all our technologies to fill the gaps we have. For example, there is no fibre in Butare."
The current customer base is government, corporate and telcos:"Two years ago we were taking 600 mbps (wholesale), now we're buying between 4-5 Gbps. It's almost increased 10-fold over that period. In the past, latency was high but now speeds are many times faster and latency is not an issue... Skills development and culture come next. What other value added services can we run on the network? By next year we'll be offering a minimum connect of 1 mbps. We want to be the service provider of choice in terms of bandwidth and useability."
"We will be going into the household business and offering triple play. We will be catering to new residential developments and a fibre connection will be built in as part of the development. We want household clients to have broadband like anywhere else in the world".
As elsewhere in Africa, social media in Rwanda has taken off: there are around 200,000 Facebook users and as Nkusi wryly notes:"It's fashionable among high school and university students. If you're not on it, you won't get a boyfriend or girlfriend." Twitter is also beginning to gather numbers and all senior members of the Government have their own Twitter accounts. And as the bandwidth has improved, the number of people using You Tube has gone up.
A partnership between the Rwanda ICT Chamber (a private sector organization) and Japanese funder JICA has created the opening of ICT incubator kLab. To see some of the rather interesting start-ups coming out of it and hear its General Manager, click on the links at the bottom of this story.
A parallel line in the vision is a desire to see Rwanda become a film and TV production hub in the East African region. Chris Marler, Pixel Corps is setting up an impressive training facility called the Africa Digital Media Academy and is already attracting interest from outside the country. See video clip of interview click here:
Rwanda is not an ICT paradise or indeed some kind lovely African utopia. There are many things that need to be done before that happy day arrives. However, it does illustrate what can be achieved when an African leader gets beyond the windy and woolly rhetoric about wanting to be part of the "information society" and starts to focus on the detail of the potential comparative advantages of the particular country he or she rules.
For breaking news, follow us on Twitter: @BalancingActAfr