31 May 2019

Mali: New Players Take a Run At Creating a Cross-Border Western African Digital Pool Connecting Guinea, Mali and Sierra in Pilot Fibre Project, Say More Countries to Follow

London — Indian giant Tata is working with a local West African entity to create cross-border connectivity, initially in West Africa and then elsewhere on the continent. Russell Southwood applauds the initiative but can't help looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Last week Tata Communications Transformation Services Limited (TCTS) announced it was partnering with Africa Development Solutions (ADS Group set up by Malian Samba Bathily) to facilitate building the fibre infrastructure backbone across Africa . TCTS will perform pre-feasibility assessments with ADS for African nations, studying existing as well as planned fibre infrastructure and deploy a multi-country connectivity infrastructure backbone.

The initiative was showcased at the Transform Africa Summit 2019 in Kigali with a great deal of high-flown promotional rhetoric:" TCTS and ADS conducted a workshop on Building a Single Digital Market for Africa, showcasing their respective experiences in next generation technologies enabling digital transformation and reducing digital divide by accelerating access to affordable and abundant internet using FSOC (Free Space Optical Communications), building Smart City & IoT networks, implementing and scaling-up the smart villages concept delivering E-health through Virtual clinics and bringing connectivity to the unconnected areas through Subsea networks and Safety through Cyber Security response centres".

When I spoke to Harkirit Singh who is part of the initiative from the TCTS side, he said the project was aimed in the near-term at addressing the more immediate problem of calls and data routed via Europe:"It's a challenge in terms of how voice and data services are being priced in Africa. If you make call between Guinea and Senegal, the call will be routed back via France or Portugal rather than across neighboring borders. We can 'domesticate' the traffic by helping build up cross-country connectivity".

He said that TCTS had done a study looking at the whole of the continent, dividing it in to different zones and looking at how this problem might be tackled:"The pilot development will be to connect Guinea, Sierra Leone and Mali. The pilot will demonstrate how easily the traffic will flow. We hope to conclude an agreement with the Guinea Government in the next three months, by the end of August. The Government of Guinea will facilitate the rest of the process. We're trying to change mindsets with the right partners and the right intentions".

The other countries - Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Mali - will follow:" We could get all countries connected by March 2020. We have expressions of interest from other countries. It's not just about fibre, it's about putting in place the operating equipment like routers and switches".

The project will be built on a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) basis with financing from donor partners (like AFDB) and be owned by the Governments involved. It will be operated on an "open access" basis but the BOT operator will get a 10-15 year monopoly concession.

According to Singh, pricing for the new routes - which will be put together from both existing routes and additions - will be set through a combination of Government, the regulator in each country and the market. He says private sector operators like MNOs will be happy to lease "trusted", high-reliability capacity because it will mean they do not have to put in CAPEX.

"Prices have been wholly inflated. Those charging 25-30 cents a minute (for voice) will see it go down. As prices go down, there will be more adoption and services... We're looking for digital transformation as we're doing in India. We're taking all those learnings back into the African market. We can use our core strengths on things like e-Government."

Whilst there is much to applaud in this initiative, it's hard not to hear a critical voice in the background. Tata Communications has fibre holdings across Africa but recently sold its unsuccessful South African operation to Liquid Telecom. It is unclear where Tata would like to play in the market.

The West African Power (WAP) Pool - a consortium of national energy companies - has been around for many years as a World Bank promoted initiative to use their fibre to connect the different countries: getting so many Governments (with protected state incumbents) to sign off was just too complicated. Tata's press release mentions aerial fibre, some of which will be WAP capacity. As a colleague once said to me:"It's not the network engineering that's the problem, it's the people engineering."

The terms of the monopoly concession proposed are unclear at this stage but would it really stop others from building additional links that competed? More redundant links between countries rather than less would surely be advantageous.

It is not clear why anyone wanting to launch a project of this kind would start with the Guinea Government as a partner. It has the rare distinction of managing an incumbent telco (Sotelgui) that went bankrupt and has repeatedly failed to return from the dead. In 2018 it was listed 138th on the Transparency International Country Corruption Ranking.

One of the other proposed partners, the Sierra Leone Government has fought tooth and nail to protect the interests of its failing incumbent Sierratel, particularly around the JV landing station. Those with long memories will also recall the difficulty MTN had when it set out to build a fibre link from Liberia to Cotre d'Ivoire. So I wish this project well and live in hope that my misgivings bout it will be unfounded.

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