The Collaboration for International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) is currently running national workshops about
increasing awareness and raising key issues on the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy) – the proposed international fiber optic network that seeks to link the eastern and part of southern Africa to the international fiber optic system – in regional African countries to raise awareness and address major concerns about EASSy. The countries targeted include: Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda and Uganda. Malawi, Burundi, Lesotho and Zimbabwe are also targeted for similar workshops but with a focus on liberalisation of telecom monopolies in those countries that have signed up to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).
This report highlights the major proceedings of the Uganda workshop held on May 2, 2006 in Kampala. It was held in conjunction with the
Association of Progressive Communications (APC) and Balancing Act. CIPESA also teamed up with two local partners namely; I-Network Uganda and Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET).
1.2 Major discussions of the workshop
The workshop focussed on ICT infrastructure with special emphasis on the opportunities that EASSy would provide. The role of the NEPAD e-Africa commission and the cost implications of EASSy and satellite connectivity were also discussed.
1.2.1 ICT Infrastructure in Uganda
The state of the ICT infrastructure in Uganda is no different from that of other African countries. The cost of bandwidth is still high
rendering computer use and Internet access only a preserve for a few, often urban elites. Yet bandwidth is key to development and its
availability depends on the size of the pipe, cost and ownership of the pipe, among other factors. From a private sector perspective, the
management and ownership of EASSy should be left in the hands of the private sector as it is the only that can now stand up to the challenges posed by globalisation and liberalisation. Given
that computing and Internet connectivity is only available to 0.5% – 7% of Africans and Asians compared to 50% – 60% Asians and North Americans, the private sector is in a better position to
provide and manage bandwidth in a way that would lead to better connection in the globalised economy.
1.2.2 The role of NEPAD in EASSy project
NEPAD’s involvement in EASSy is through its e-Africa Commission that is responsible for developing policies, strategies and projects at
the continental level. The commission also manages the structured development of the ICT sector to ensure that all African countries get
connected to the fibre-optic cable system.
Presently, NEPAD is the main continental body spearheading EASSy. It is striving to enable landlocked countries access submarine cable heads and is also involved in the creation of a legal policy and regulatory framework of the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) that can own, develop, operate and maintain the network, including the EASSy cable.
In NEPAD’s view, the ‘Club’ model as fronted by the consortium presents the following disadvantages for EASSy stakeholders:
– The incentive scheme means that small investors subsidise large investors.
– Smaller investors could be forced out of the international telecom business in their countries when markets are fully liberalised.
– It also presents inherent inequalities among EASSy consortium parties i.e. some are wealthy, some have large customer bases and some
have extensive submarine expertise.
At the end of May 2006, regional ministers will meet to discuss, among other things, the shape of the proposed SPV. Once endorsed, it would be in charge of setting EASSy off the ground and seeing it to fruition. The envisaged SPV would adopt an open access model to ensure that EASSy bandwidth is affordable and accessible to all stakeholders.
1.2.3 Rural connectivity
The past eight years have seen a rise in the range of technologies available to rural communities in Uganda. These include; radio,
mobile phone and fax machines. Today, it is estimated that 2% of households in Uganda use mobile phones. But even if rural connectivity
would certainly generate employment and other opportunities for rural communities, it is beset by a number of challenges. These include:
– Lack of electricity
– Limited private sector interest in rural areas
– Inadequate ICT infrastructure
With these challenges therefore, it is prudent for government to extend connectivity to rural areas especially when EASSy becomes a reality. Uganda should also consider a public-private partnership in laying a national infrastructure backbone that will include fibre optics. The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) is spearheading the process while the private sector is set to play the practical role of installing the backbone.
1.2.4 Comparative analysis of cost connectivity
Opinion is sharply divided as to whether EASSy is the panacea to Uganda’s bandwidth problems. Like many other African countries, Uganda lacks adequate ICT infrastructure to support EASSy. It therefore leaves doubt in some people’s minds as whether the cable would meet the expectations of all the stakeholders (especially the mass
Consequently, many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and other private sector operators believe that the Open Access model, as
advocated for by NEPAD, cannot work in an African context. Unlike in parts of Europe where it has succeed largely because of infrastructure built by providers as part of their universal service obligations, Africa has no such system in place. One way of circumventing this bottleneck is perhaps devising a hybrid between an SPV that is
favoured by NEPAD and that of the consortium.
1.3 Issues raised during the discussion
– Representatives of UCC believe that Ugandan operators should be ready to accept an open access model. In this way, they should be
ready to compete not on selling EASSy bandwidth but providing services that will be enabled by the cable.
– Given that prices for connectivity through VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminals) and satellite are falling progressively, EASSy must offer bandwidth at lower prices than either of the two alternatives. The market, rather than the EASSy cartel should therefore be the key determinant of the prices at which EASSy bandwidth would be sold.
– The benefits of EASSy would only be realised by ordinary Internet users when fibre optic cables are extended beyond the country’s handful of major towns. The fact that local calls are expensive for the majority of rural mobile phone owners is in itself a disincentive to the extension of fibre beyond Uganda’s major towns.
– Although opinion is still sharply divided over which model would best suit EASSy, those in favour of closed access believe that government should never return to doing business in national interest as it has proved a failure in other ventures in the past. Government’s intervention should stop at creating a conducive policy regulation environment. In a way, EASSy should be a public good run by the private sector with the aim of making profit.
– Government should set up a Ministry of ICT to monitor and support ICT innovations in the country since ICT has become part and parcel of all sectors of the economy.
– Government should also urgently address the issue of corruption that has led to the failure of similar infrastructure projects like Bujagali power project and the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and malaria.
– Government and private sector also need to harmonise efforts to address the challenges of rural connectivity especially through the management of the Rural Connectivity Development Fund (RCDF).
Report prepared by CIPESA