London — Central Africa is probably the largest geographic area of the continent without a wide array of redundant fibre connecting its different countries. The Central African Backbone project was devised to change all that but it has been eight years and counting without a great deal happening. Russell Southwood looks at the new announcement and reflects on the snail's pace of progress.
Fibre projects are hard and those that cross borders are even harder. For the less attractive markets in Africa, it's usually a combination of lack of money and Government regulation. However, in October 2009 the World Bank announced a US$215 million fund for a Central African Backbone project that would connect Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
One of the key sticking points in developing these plans has been the attitude of the Cameroon Government. It has insisted throughout that its telco incumbent not only retain its monopoly on wholesale infrastructure but also has control of all the country's international fibre landing stations.
Feasibility work was done an ambitious plan for the Central African Backbone but the Cameroon Government refused to implement the required policy recommendations. In 2014, the Ministers of Posts and Telecommunications in Brazzaville, the Ministers of DRC, Chad and Congo-Brazzaville signed an agreement called the Brazzaville Declaration, pledging to connect Central Africa with a broadband fibre network.
The Brazzaville Agreement committed the signatories to ensure open access to telecommunications infrastructure at any point in their respective territories and to establish and strengthen national policies conducive to the creation of favorable conditions for predictability and transparency competition in the telecommunications sector. The signatories also pledged that they would mobilize both private and public resources and co-ordinate road and rail development with their fibre plans. One of those who did not sign the agreement was Cameroon.
Chad has wrestled with limited success to get cost-effective access to Cameroon's landing stations when the cost of fibre for a landlocked country like Uganda is now below US$100 per mbps at volume. Cameroon could have become the Central African hub for international fibre access but has chosen to ignore this opportunity.
This month saw the African Development Bank signed a grant agreement for 13.6 million units of account, about 16.68 million euros, to finance the "Central African Fiber Optic Backbone Project (CAB) - RCA Component". The first connection to be built will be through the longer route to Congo-Brazzaville rather than initially through the shorter route to Cameroon. However, subject to full financing, both routes will get built.
The total cost of the required investment is 33.28 million euros, 16.6 million euros of which will be financed by the European Union that signed an agreement with AFDB in December.
ICT has been identified as one of the main sources of growth and job creation by the National Plan for Recovery and Consolidation of Peace for the Central African Republic (RCPCA) adopted in October 2016. The plan envisages penetration of Internet services reaching at least 20% of the Central African population in 2021.