DRC: No electric infrastructure, no internet backbone?
By Tiego Tiemtoré for APCNews
OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO, 21 August 2007
Within the perspective of making high-speed internet accessible to the Congolese people, the development of an internet backbone in the Congo seems to be a necessity that could give an immediate boost.
On Tuesday 7 August 2007, the feasibility study for an open internet backbone in the DRC was officially revealed at the Francophone Digital Campus of Kinshasa (Cedesurk). This first independent study was carried out by Alternatives, in collaboration with the International Development Research Centre, the Congolese Posts and Telecommunications Office (Office congolais des postes et télécommunications – OCPT), the firm, Xit Télécom and the Sectoral ICT Initiative (Dynamique Multisectorielle pour les TIC).
With regard to the challenges, the participation of the national electricity company (SNEL), and also the difficulties related to this ambitious Congolese project, APCNews quizzed Alphonse Ntita, a specialist in ICTs and internet infrastructure issues, who is part of the ten or so researchers having worked on the implementation of the study.
APCNews: What is the current internet situation in the DRC?
Alphonse Ntita: In the DRC, there are currently 21 internet service providers, 12 of which use SVPC  technology, nine mobile video transmission with SVPC and one fibre optic. Twelve of these ISPs are limited to the city of Kinshasa, seven serve between two and five provinces, and only two (also GSM telecommunications operators – used in mobile telephony) serve all of the country’s provinces.
Policy in this domain is limited to granting of licences. To date, no other aspects are regulated, apart from those covered by the telecommunications law.
1 A SPVC (Semi-Permanent Virtual connection) is a PVC or SVC type connection, which is used for call establishment and automatic rerouting. Source: Wikipedia
APCNews : What is the major challenge at the heart of the feasibility study?
AN: Carried out by an independent team of experts, the aim of the study is to propose an [internet] network, the least costly possible in terms of investment and operation.
The team of experts was made up nationals and foreigners specialised in ICT.
APCNews: What are the main recommendations of the study presented on 7 August 2007?
AN: We may accept three major recommendations:
– Recourse to SNEL’s transmission towers as supporting structures and, where that is not possible [close to 50% of the area], following railway and road routes.
– The establishment of a network on the open access model.
– Use of ADSL  technology for the fibre itself. With regard to optoelectronic equipment, DWDM  and ethernet  technology in a new-generation fibre optic network using DWDM for the backbone and ethernet for access networks;
2 ADSL works on a classic telephone line to provide high-speed communications. However, since the speed of ISDN (the old system) is limited to 64 kb/s in both directions, ADSL technology enables an uplink stream (towards the server) at 640 kb/s, and a downlink stream (towards the client) at over 6 Mb/s. The kludge consists of using a part of the bandwidth not used for voice transport, enabling data and voice to be transmitted over the same line (concretely, one could telephone while surfing the net). ADSL is particularly appropriate for applications such as video-on-demand or on the web, that is for applications where the user receives more information that he sends. – Source: Wikipedia
3 WDM technology originated from the idea of simultaneously introducing several streams of digital signals into the same optic fibre at the same modulation speed, but each one with a separate wavelength. – Source : Wikipedia
4 Ethernet is a packet-switching computer network protocol. It is basically a local network technology that enables all the machines on a network to be connected to the same transmission line, made of cylindrical cables. – Source : Wikipedia
APCNews : What explanation can you give for the open access concept promoted by the study?
AN: It is a management mode which is flexible to implement, where several partners may develop and use a single network. This fits in with the management mode that the Congolese state aims to introduce through the Public Private Partnerships (PPP) concept.
APCNews: What place are you giving the national electricity company (SNEL) in this project?
AN: It is really a fundamental place because it must be acknowledged that these towers offer the least costly method for laying fibre optic. Moreover, you should know that with regard to these current projects, cable installation is automatically factored in. It therefore still needs to be done for the existing networks.
APCNews: What scenario would be conceivable in the event that SNEL does not wish to collaborate?
AN : There is no reason for SNEL refusing to collaborate. On the one hand, it is a State company which can only implement the policy imposed by the higher authorities and, on the other hand, fibre optic will bring in a little more revenue. However, in the unlikely event that it refuses, the implementing parties may resort to other support structures, namely railways, roads and even rivers.
APCNews: The results of this study will be proposed to the government, the Congolese private sector, civil society, as well as international donors. How are you going to handle it, and what are your expectations?
AN: The first action is the organisation of the seminar on 4th August for governmental and private sector decision-makers, in order to make them aware of the importance of ICTs for the development of our country, make proposals to them on the best way of appropriating these ICTs for ourselves, and present our study report to them.
APCNews: Will a reduction in the digital divide in the DRC be via a multi-party initiative, as proved by this project?
AN: Effectively. You know, the problem is that each party to the process of implementing the information society has its qualities and deficiencies.
The government, although pursuing the common good, does not always have the means for its policy. Corporates, although effective, often neglect the common interest in favour of their shareholders’ interests. Civil society, although it has generous ideas, suffers from a crying lack of means. We believe that civil society may be able to play a buffer role between the government and corporates, but in conjunction with them, and not in confrontation.
APCNews: What are the perspectives offered to the internet and ICTs in the DRC on the eve of the presentation of this study?
AN: We believe that if this study results in concrete implementation, the internet in the DRC will move from the phase of being an elitist asset – that it is at this time, to becoming an asset for broad consumption.
Comments collected by Tiego Tiemtoré for APCNews