Lyndall Shope-Mafole, Director General of South Africa’s Department of Communications, spoke to CIPESA on August 29 2006 about what her government is doing to increase affordability of telecom services, the East African Submarine System (EASSy) and the future of the SAT 3 cable. Excerpts:
Q. What is the South African (SA) government doing to enhance affordability of telecommunications services?
A. One of the objectives of our government is to make SA competitive and broaden participation of the poorest citizens in our economy. To increase competitiveness in the economy the cost of communication has to be much lower, so we want reliable communication that is affordable. From experience, the cost of communication is cheaper where there is infrastructure and where governments have taken a specific role to see that infrastructure is built and is affordable. Governments can do this using public funds, or tax exemptions.
For SA the challenge is that we are big geographically; we are not small like Singapore where you can put up fibre overnight and cover the whole country. Yet the state has to make infrastructure available. So we have licenced a Second National Operator (SNO), but even then unless you take a deliberate policy to ensure that the network goes beyond big towns, you will not cover all the country.
Q. How does EASSy fit into this picture, and how will you reconcile with private sector players that accuse governments and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) of sidelining them in the EASSy project?
A. It is difficult to argue with people who have invested their own money but our role as governments is to set the policy framework under which the cable will be built. The telecom companies are not terribly thrilled with governments because the governments are saying this cable is not only for profits but has developmental objectives too. Besides, governments will assist to get funding for EASSy under the NEPAD framework. Even the smallest African telecom company can have equity to put in the network. That will promote competition and affordability of EASSy bandwidth.
Q. What benefits will the SNO bring to SA?
A. More competition often leads to lower prices. But the more important thing is that South Africans will have an alternative to Telkom and the mobile operators. It is in the exercise of choices that companies are then forced to attract people, reduce tariffs, and provide a variety of services.
We have already promulgated regulations to enable number portability. What this means is that a customer keeps their number regardless of the mobile operator they are subscribed to. If one is fed up with Cell C, or Vodacom or MTN, they cross to another provider but keep their number. The cost of communication can only go down if you have choices. And if it is easy to make for subscribers to switch, operators will strive to get more customers and to keep those they have. [The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) in early September decided that Mobile Number Portability (MNP) would take effect on November 10 2006 rather than on September 18 as had earlier been announced. Telecom operators had asked to be given up to October 30 or November 30 to ready themselves for MNP – CIPESA].
Q. Telecom companies also need to share infrastructure to lower their capital inputs.
A. There could be government regulations that there should be sharing, because it is rare that those who build their infrastructure allow others to use it. But in some areas in SA there are trials by companies to share infrastructure under the Digital Video Broadcasting venture though which television channels are received via cellphone. For this to be possible you have to build a network afresh. Companies are saying if government says a parastatal will build the network and then they are able to use it, they will be happy. Also, operators also increasingly realising that you don’t have to build five highways to Durban.
Q. What will happen after the monopoly which companies like Telkom SA have in SAT 3 ends next year?
A. Already some of the companies in SAT 3 have indicated that the NEPAD principles that we have adopted for EASSy should apply to SAT 3 at the end of the contract period. But they will have to consult on this. I am sure EASSy [bandwidth] will be a lot cheaper and they will want to benefit from that. The ownership protocol we signed [in Kigali on August 29) puts all those things in context and provides for cables on the continent being inter-linked. Government could also spell out what companies that were party to SAT 3 before we signed the protocol can do, and what those that wish to access it after the signing can do. I don’t envisage major problems in that regard. In SA we shall make sure our international infrastructure is harmonised with the new cable (EASSy).
Construction of the 13,700 km Sea Cable System (SEACOM, www.seacom.mu) is underway and expected to reach completion by June 2009. The cable will comprise two fibre pairs, connecting South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya, to India and Egypt, with an option for connectivity into the UAE and Djibouti. CIPESA/Fibre-for-Africa (www.fibreforafrica.net) spoke to SEACOM Ltd. president Brian Herlihy.
Q. Who are the partners in SEACOM and how much are they investing in the network?
SEACOM has publicly announced its investors, it is 75% African owned with Agha Khan Economic Development Group (IPS) out of East Africa, Venfin, Convergence Partners and Shanduka group from South Africa. The remaining 25% is owned by Herakles Telecom, our New York based development company. Herakles management is also the management of Sithe Global (developer and investor of the Bujagali Hydro in Uganda) and Global Alumina, a $4.5 billion alumina refinery in Guinea.
Q. What do you envisage will be the prices for SEACOM’s bandwidth?
SEACOM’s pricing is the equivalent of $100 to $170 per Mb/s per month.
Q. In what ways will SEACOM be competitive compared to other fibre initiatives in the region, such as TEAMS and EASSy?
SEACOM is the only cable offering a PoP (Point of Presence) to PoP solution for Europe and Asia. I believe this is a large advantage and the purchase of onward capacity is a difficult process. SEACOM understands that TEAMS has very competitive pricing to Fujairah. SEACOM believes that its pricing to Europe is more competitive than EASSy’s pricing to Sudan.
Q. How will SEACOM assure affordability of services, and how has it been responsive to NEPAD’s calls for Open Access?
SEACOM has structured each landing point as an open access unit. This has been accomplished in two formats. First, the capital cost of the landing stations is a sunk cost for SEACOM, in other words SEACOM does not seek to recover the investment costs of the landing station through co-location fees.
Secondly, each landing station is built with an additional building whereby customers can put their own equipment at the cable station. SEACOM has published its prices through many different forums. The pricing is an 80% discount over current satellite charges and is the only cable offering capacity directly from a PoP in Nairobi to a PoP in Europe or India without the requirement to purchase onward capacity.
Q. Would you say the fact that SEACOM is not a local company in the countries where it is going to land fibre places it at a disadvantage compared to other cable systems such as EASSy and TEAMS?
Depending on each country’s regulatory regime, SEACOM has either established a local entity to operate the cable or partnered with an existing cable. SEACOM will bring experienced operators to the cable to ensure that the local entities maintain world class quality service.
Q. What are your comments to the assertion that it is not viable for the eastern coast of Africa to have three competing cables? Do you see a need for the cables to cooperate in some areas rather than duplicate everything?
The current capacity demand on the East Coast of Africa is very small. However, we believe that the future demand will experience exponential growth. Having said that, the three competing systems would create a large over-supply, which could create a short-term glut.
Q. What is Herakles Telecom and where does it operate from?
Herakles Telecom is a development company set in New York. The management is the same management that works with Sithe Global (www.sitheglobal.com) and Global Alumina (www.globalalumina.com)
Q. There has been talk that Herakles staff were involved in the Africa One project which did not materialise, and that they collected money from African telecom, which money has purportedly not been refunded. How true is this, and how could it affect SEACOM’s operations?
I have noted the slander towards myself and JP (Jean Pierre de Leu) out of Kenya. I can confirm that both of us worked and spent many years with Africa ONE for the hope that this project would go forward. However, neither of us were principals of this project and left the project from 2002. It was our understanding that the only countries that made a deposit were Eritrea and Mauritania.
We understand that the sales person for Eritrea was able to help that money be returned. It should be noted that the Africa ONE name was sold by AT&T to a private investment group in 1998 and it was this group who was responsible for that money. ¬JP and myself have nothing to do with this entity. Since Africa (2002) I have worked as a developer on over $5 billion of projects in Africa, each of which have excellent reputations and large impacts in their respective countries, including Bujagali in Uganda.
– January 2008
CIPESA spoke to the Policy and Regulatory Affairs Adviser at the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) eAfrica Commission, Dr Edmund Katiti, abut the status of the cable and how the Commission will engage dissatisfied telecom operators.
Q. Why are EASSy consortium members giving up on NEPAD’s eAfrica Commission, and what is your planned way forward?
The Kigali Protocol defines categories of entities (companies) that can have shareholding in the Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) that will develop, own, operate, and maintain the regional ICT broadband network for Eastern and Southern Africa, which comprises a submarine segment and a terrestrial segment. The SPVs will be companies that are open to just about any corporate entity that wishes to invest in the opportunity. Therefore, the SPVs will be formed in the near future, whether one or two telecom operators choose to stay out.
Q. How many signatories of the EASSy memorandum of understanding have pulled out of the project and what reasons have they given?
We are not aware of any telecom operator pulling out of the Eastern Africa Submarine cable project. However, a meeting of prospective shareholders in the SPVs that will own, develop, operate, and maintain the submarine segment of the ICT Broadband Infrastructure Network for Eastern & Southern Africa is being planned in the coming months. That will be the time to know which companies are interested in the network.
Q. What is the eAfrica Commission doing to attract more members and when do you hope construction of the cable will begin?
Answer: The NEPAD e-Africa Commission is in the process of recruiting consultants that will prepare a Project Information Memorandum that will be used to interest prospective shareholders and lead them through negotiation and signing of a shareholders’ agreement. Construction of the cable should begin in the middle of this year.
Q. With 12 members countries having signed the Protocol, when do you think the protocol will be signed and when will financing for the project be secured?
Twelve countries signed the Protocol and it will come into effect when seven of them have ratified it. After this, the countries that did not get to sign the Protocol may accede to it. The financing of the project will be organised by the shareholders in the SPVs mentioned above.
Q. Donald Nyakairu, chair of the EASSy finance committee, says the eAfrica Commission should not hijack the EASSy because it ‘hijacked’ it from the consortium. Will you stop using this name now that some of the MoU signatories seem to be parting ways with the Commission, and are suggesting they could build a different cable?
The Eastern Africa Submarine cable project was adopted and incorporated into the ICT Broadband Infrastructure Network for Eastern & Southern Africa, developed by stakeholders in June 2004, and is a key component of that network. In November 2004, the agreed network was adopted by the NEPAD Heads of State and Government Implementation Committee as a NEPAD flagship project.
In this context, The NEPAD e-Africa Commission, acting within its mandate as NEPAD’s task team for the ICT sector, is coordinating efforts of the governments of Eastern and Southern Africa to put in place a policy and regulatory framework under which this regional ICT broadband infrastructure network should be built.
It must be pointed out that the network goes beyond the submarine cable as it is intended to “connect African countries to one another, and in turn, to the rest of the world”. It should benefit land-locked countries as much as the coastal ones. The network will be developed, owned, operated, and maintained by the SPVs mentioned above. The Commission and governments of the region will remain responsible for policy and regulatory issues.
Q. Kenya and South Africa have unveiled plans to build their own links to the international fibre optic system. Will this not render EASSy less competitive, or even unviable?
The NEPAD e-Africa Commission is coordinating efforts of the governments of Eastern and Southern Africa to put in place a policy and regulatory framework under which a regional ICT broadband infrastructure network should be built. This network will consist of a terrestrial segment and a submarine segment, and is meant to achieve certain developmental objectives, the most important of which is to lower the cost of communication. Any other initiative that has similar noble objectives should be welcomed.
Q. In this scenario, what’s the best way for east and southern Africa to go about investing in marine fibre and making its bandwidth affordable, accessible, and managed to the satisfaction of various stakeholders?
The best way is to ensure that the region has affordable and accessible broadband connectivity is to get the countries of the region to ratify and/or accede to the Kigali Protocol that binds them to jointly develop a regional network that will offer affordable and accessible broadband connectivity on open and non-discriminatory basis.
Q. Who among the MoU signatories has jumped out of the EASSy project? And how will you go about mobilising funds for constructing the cable?
The SPVs that will develop, own, operate and maintain the regional network are yet to be formed but progress is being made towards their formation.