African cable project gains interest

IT training in South Africa Copyright: Trevor Samson / World Bank

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Several African governments are currently nominating investors for a submarine communications cable project linking countries in eastern and southern Africa.

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is backing the project — which it yet to be named — after its involvement in the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy) initiative ceased following disagreements over the way it will be run (see Infighting plagues East African undersea cable project).

So far over 40 investors have registered interest and will come together at a preliminary shareholder meeting in the coming months, said a NEPAD source who declined to be named. Potential investors are African pension funds, utility companies and telecommunications operators.

The new project will adhere to NEPAD’s Kigali Protocol, which dictates that the cable will be treated as a public good, slashing the cost of African communications.

Wholesale Internet links from the NEPAD cable will be sold to authorised telecommunications operators, Internet service providers and academic institutions at low, pre-determined prices. A government representative will monitor the cable project’s adherence to regulations and other polices.

The protocol was originally designed with EASSy in mind, but EASSy’s investors — made up only of private-sector telecommunications companies with no government involvement (although the World Bank has taken a stake) — have opted for a model with no predetermined prices.

But competition between these large telecommunications companies will force down prices, EASSy representatives told SciDev.Net.

Yet industry observers have voiced scepticism over whether NEPAD’s new submarine cable project will ever become a reality. They also doubt that other private-sector-backed cables — including proposed projects such as Seacom and the Kenya Data Network Reliance cable — will respect ‘public good’ principles by enabling easy access and affordable prices.

But Vincent Waiswa Bagiire, director of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa, a non-profit organisation that analyses cable projects in Africa, is reassured by talks with EASSy. “They point out that they are not in it to make money from bandwidth sales but to use the cable to improve their services,” he says.