Q&A with South Africa’s Communications Director General

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).

Q&A: NEPAD insists it has mandate over EASSy

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.

National Workshop Hosted By Cipesa Discusses EASSy

1.0 Introduction
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