London — Big developments are afoot in DRC that will transform the country's connectivity. Nothing moves quickly but the new Government seems to be slightly more focused than its predecessor. Russell Southwood looks at the connectivity proposals and the state of the digital market.
The current Government has a Plan National de Numérique which has several objectives including: "modernize the management and pool resources and infrastructure in order to achieve significant gains in terms of effectiveness and efficiency; allow citizens and businesses to interact online with public administration and partners; provide users with better quality services that reduce costs and delays, with the added guarantee of maximum transparency". It lays an emphasis on infrastructure, particularly fibre. Alongside this focus from Government, the MNOs are also very interested in supporting initiatives.
There are plans to improve international and national connections as well as metronets in the capital Kinshasa. The biggest challenge in terns of fibre at the moment is the state of the sole DRC international connection from WACS at Muanda to the capital Kinshasa currently managed by SCPT, the state-owned telco revived in 2012. There are lots of challenges with the link including outages, maintenance and throughput issues.
As a result there is still a higher than might be expected reliance on geo-stationery satellite and 03B capacity. As one industry insider told us:" Some operators are using big capacity from 03B. It's still more expensive than fibre, about twice the price but it has a reputation of being reliable with high availability. Some users combine fibre, 03B and geostationary satellite capacity. There's a high value on things like 03B".
Although many people are talking about satellite not being relevant for the main cities in the short-term, this is currently not the case and improvements in satellite throughput from HTS may see it last longer there than expected.
There's a project that that Facebook is involved in to revive and upgrade an energy management fibre link from Inga that goes via Kinshasa to Katanga. It is supposed to be completing soon and will offer more dark fibre but it is not yet clear who will manage it.
There is a second international fibre link across the river from Brazzaville (Congo Telecom) but "the legal status is not clear. Most people using but there might be restrictions in the future".
There are also plans to connect to Lubumbashi in the east but the timelines are not yet clear. Probably through to Zambia with Liquid Telecom. Some issues: natural disasters because of the rains, broken infrastructure and energy supply.
There is also a planned roll-out of metronet fibre in Kinshasa, a city of 50 million which according to my industry source is "the place where things are happening". One of the moving forces behind this proposal is Alain Malanda (as President) and FTTx-DRC (launched in January), whose founding committee includes: Ives Mbuilu, Bertin Tshibangu, Michel Bienvenue Lamba, Erick Kisisa, Mak Mbelenge, Hilaire Mulondwa, Christian Mboma, Serge Ilunga, Musavuli Mbutho, Hubert Mamba and Raoul Ky Maka.
At the launch Malanda explained whit was needed:"The idea behind this association is to be able to provide global expertise that we do not have in the DRC. First, we are talking about standards and norms. We will talk about how to deploy the fiber and the techniques that must be adopted or adopted for this deployment and training.
Also the idea behind the professional body is to be able to facilitate training that are certified by accredited institutions like fiber optic association (FOA) here in Congo. Behind all that, it is also to provide consultancy, a contribution or support to operators who want where are established in the sector in Congo. , we have many economic operators who would like to develop in the DRC but do not have the economic, commercial and social expertise of the market. (...) compared to that, FTTx-DRC will be there to give this support technical, economic and regulatory in the field of fiber optics, "he said.
Musavuli Mbutho, one of the members of the founding committee of FTTx - DRC said that this activity is a further demonstration that the Congolese are able to come together and produce something great and positive. "Here the professionals of the optical fiber met for several months, they discussed nevertheless each one pursues the private objectives in his private company.
They were able to meet around the same table to solve the problems of their corporation and together constitute as a partner to accompany the government in the success of its policy regarding fiber optics. So this is something that I wanted to encourage and I will continue to support this organization as a member . I invite people and companies who think they have a major role to play in the deployment of fiber optics in the country to join this corporation, their interests will be defended as a group and not in isolation, "he said.
In terms of the mobile operators, the upgrade to 4G has happened in the main cities and this is becoming one of their main sources of income. My industry source told me:"There has been a bigger bigger jump in data traffic than expected. I keep reading about there being more and more capacity, both radio and fibre. Three companies are very involved in these initiatives: Liquid Telecom, CSquared and Facebook".
There are large populations outside the main cities and with rural regions "it's another game. Demand may increase and it's not to be neglected. There are plans from most MNOs to go big on that side with hundreds to thousands of 2G/3G sites".
So what are DRC's digital consumers doing with all this access to new data?:"The kind of traffic is now similar to the pattern you see in developed countries. There's a lot of video watching that would have been out of the question 5-6 years ago. They watch things like yesterday's championship match and YouTube. Retail data pricing has become more affordable and there's been regulation to bring prices down".
Social media is the main part of the uptick in data traffic. There are 2.7 million social media users in DRC using all the well-known social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
"WhatsApp is used everywhere in Kinshasa in terms of corporates, including video calls. It's becoming the first means of communicating, particularly messaging. There are less video calls as the bandwidth quality is not as good as elsewhere. There's still quite poor connectivity. 4G use is mainly high-end users, it's not yet mass market. But there's an increasing use of smartphones (27% of mobile connections are 3G or 4G.) The smartphone is increasingly becoming the standard - even in rural areas - where there are "lite" base stations. The moment people get the phones, there is an increase in data use".