London — Despite some economic difficulties caused by falling oil prices, Congo-Brazzaville has been taking some significant digital steps forward. The incumbent telco Congo Telecom has ambitious plans to upgrade broadband delivery. Russell Southwood spoke to Renylle Akouala, Multimedia, Wholesale and Enterprise Solutions, Congo Telecom at AfricaCom 2019.
Congo-Brazzaville's fibre link to the world is through the WACS landing station which makes the incumbent Congo Telecom the only seller of international bandwidth in the country. The current price for an IP transit STM64 link is US$28,000 but for much smaller amounts of capacity the prices are obviously much higher per mbps.
The WACS landing station at Pointe Noire has connections through to Angola's Cabinda enclave and to the capital of DRC, Kinshasa via Brazzaville and a sub-river connection to SCPT: "We provide transit (to Kinshasa) almost free of charge. We don't care about the price, which is between US$3-10 per mbps. The coastal link from the landing station at Muanda in DRC is not very good".
Congo Telecom buys capacity from Angola Cables from Sangano in DRC to Fortaleza in Brazil and on to Miami in the USA. Renylle Akouala tells me that an international Chinese carrier is interested in the Johannesburg-Miami route.
The company has international POPs in London (Telehouse and Global Switch), Paris (Telehouse 2), Johannesburg (Teraco), Frankfurt, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Cote d'Ivoire so that it can get better prices from the owners of the networks that meet there. It also connects to IXPs like the Central Africa Exchange Point (CGIX), NAP Africa, Angola IX and FranceIX.
It wants to expand its network to offer national broadband services and "will support national and international companies in their regional expansion by building POPs around Congo and the world, providing more fibre connectivity, upgrading the 3G mobile network to 4G LTE, connecting rural areas and developing innovative services."
It has a large capital project to provide national fibre coverage. The fibre network project was started in 2012. One arm of the network goes north-east from Pointe Noire (the country's commercial capital) as far as Sibiti. The other arm of the network goes along the south of the country to Brazzaville (the capital) before going north to Ouessa, with an offshoot to Boundji that will be extended to Ewo in the next phase.
On this northern part of the network, it goes west from Ngo to Lekana and in the next phase it will connect to Sibiti to create a fibre ring in the bottom half of the country. It has a total of about 3,000 kms of long-distance fibre and 600 kms of metronets in Brazzaville, Pointe Noire and Oyo. It swapped out its copper for fibre in 2013.
In November 2019 it opened two fibre pairs redundancy on the Pointe Noire-Brazzaville stretch, each offering 100 GB. Ninety per cent of demand in the country comes from Pointe Noire and Brazzaville.
Demand has gone up a great deal over the last three years:"The capacity delivered to the end user used to be 512 kbps and is now up to 25-100 mbps on FTTH/X, for which there are 10,000 customers. It's the same price then and as now for a non-dedicated line." It launched a triple play product in January 2018 with a decoder that gives users over 100 TV and radio channels.
Over the next three to five years the price will go lower and the capacity higher. The target in the next five years is to provide 10 GB at home and 2.5 GB on the mobile.:"We just need to complete the ring". All this new demand is coming from entertainment content and social media use: at the end of 2018 there were 600,000 Facebook users:"There's an improved customer experience over fibre".
The country's mobile market is dominated by the duopoly of Airtel and MTN. The two operators share 5.2 million subscribers with MTN taking 64.2% and Airtel 35.7% at the end of October 2019. At the end of the same period, there were 2.25 million mobile data subscribers, just over half of all mobile subscribers.
The two other mobile operators - Azur and Warid - have closed down but Azur Telecom CEO Jean Bruno Obambi gave a press conference in 2019 at which he announced the rehabilitation of the company's telecom installations in Brazzaville, Pointe-Noire and Dolisie, as well as their re-commissioning.
According to Michel Legare - the General Manager of the Canadian group Télécom International Solution, which oversaw the audit of the Azur telecom network and its rehabilitation - the work carried out focused on energy installations, radio equipment and transmission. Jean Bruno Obambi also revealed that the company would soon finalize the ongoing negotiations with its partners to mobilize the ten billion FCFA that will be used to pay the 4G license. Nothing has been heard from the company since the press conference.