22 June 2018

Africa's Slowest Moving Fibre Project Begins to Fall Into Place - Congo-B Tenders for Links to Cameroon and Central African Republic

Photo: The East African
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London — Congo-Brazzaville should take the credit for being the most active country partner in the slow moving Central African Backbone project. It linked to neighboring Gabon in April and is now tendering for links to Cameroon and Central African Republic. Russell Southwood looks at how things are falling into place.

In January 2018 I wrote a story on Africa's slowest moving fibre project. 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.

But things are changing at least in Congo-Brazzaville. It has been pushing the project forward by rolling out its link to neighboring Gabon at a cost of CFAF 15 billion with the official opening in April. The work was completed by Chinese company Huawei, in collaboration with the Congo-Ocean Railway (CFCO), which facilitated installation of the fiber-optic cable along the railway.

The link to Gabon has been has been particularly important for the country as it desperately needed a redundant international link. In June last year there was a fifteen day complete Internet outage because a fishing vessel had cut the cable to its landing station. With this new link, it can simply divert traffic to Gabon's landing station. Congo-Brazzaville is on the WACS cable and the landing party is MTN.

At a press conference on 13 June the Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and the Digital Economy, Léon Juste Ibombo announced two fibre link tenders: one for a link to Cameroon and the other to the Central African Republic.

Funded with 78.2% support from the African Development Bank (AfDB), overall the project will cost estimated at CFAF43,658,000,000 and will be implemented in three stages, one for each link.

The Cameroon link will follow a route from Ouesso-Sembe-Souanke and reach the border at Ntam. The tender covers civil engineering works, the supply and installation of fibre and the construction of technical sites along the route.

The Central African Republic link will follow the route from Pokola-Ouesso-Kabo-Bomassa-Bayanga-Salo along one of the tributary rivers to the Congo that follows the Cameroon border up to the Central African Republic. These links will add to Congo-Brazzaville's existing 504 kms fibre infrastructure.

With these three links to its neighbors, Congo-Brazzaville has been the most energetic of the countries signed up to the Central African Backbone Project. Cameroon has been a notable absentee.

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.

But as an article on the World Bank website in April 2018 makes clear, the existence of infrastructure does not mean that the connectivity is offered to users at a sensible price. "If this new infrastructure effectively helps enhance internet service in the country, the logical consequence should be the lowering of connection costs for users," states Aymar Kodia, a young, seasoned internet user. "And that is good news, because the current rates charged by both public and private operators are simply exorbitant (1 Mb costs CFAF 65,000 or $122!)."

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