By APCNews CALGARY, 16 July 2009
During the 1990s, the Republic of Congo, like most countries, experienced significant growth in the telecommunications sector. However, the liberalisation of the telecommunications market in 1997, when the monopoly held by the National Office of Posts and Telecommunications (ONPT) gave way to free competition among multiple operators, was not free of problems, and the country continues to suffer the effects today. Although these problems are reflected in infrastructure, an inadequate legislative framework is responsible for the repercussions that are most deeply felt by the population: 97% of Congolese do not have access to the internet, and the fixed and mobile telephony operators are largely inefficient. As is the case in numerous African countries, it has been difficult to implement a coherent ICT policy in the Congo. Will the new presidential term about to begin bring successful reforms to this sector, which has seen a “difficult period” since its inception?
Off on the wrong foot
Following the liberalisation of the telecommunications market in 1997, a new public operator was created to replace the ONPT, which had become increasingly inefficient. Civil war from 1997 to 1999 delayed progress in the sector, where the new operator, Société des Télécommunications du Congo (SOTELCO) became responsible for the provision of basic telecommunications services (fixed-line telephony, telegraphy), in which the operator essentially passed from one monopoly to another. To this day it is unable to provide basic services to the Congolese, in what seems more like a general regression of the telecoms sector – a slow decay and collapse that has been going on for more than a decade – and is often referred to as a “difficult period”.
A regulatory agency was also created for the newly liberalised telecommunications sector – the Direction Générale de l’Administration Centrale des Postes et Télécommunications (DGACPT) – but it has not been able to fulfill its mandate because it has merely provisional status. As a result, there is still no clear separation between the regulatory agency and the public authority, which distorts the conditions for free competition. Since current regulation does not guarantee the separation of regulatory and telecommunications service provision functions, competition in the sector is flawed by monopoly aspects that benefit the public operator. This is not the case with mobile telephony however, and hopes now lie on the third and newest operator to help reduce prices and encourage competition.
According to Luc Missidimbazi, a telecommunications engineer and president of the Congolese civil society organisation Association PRATIC, the heart of the problem lies in infrastructure. The deployment of a backbone network in conjunction with other development initiatives could contribute significantly to improving matters. Currently, the country still depends on costly satellite connections, which makes it difficult to promote the widespread use of the internet. Numerous cybercafés have been forced to shut down after only a few months in operation because there simply were not enough customers to keep them in business. This lack of clientele is the result of poor connectivity and staggering costs. In some places, an hour of internet service costs CDF 1,000 (around USD 2) an hour. Not only is this an exorbitant amount in a country where people earn as little as USD 3 or USD 4 a day, but even worse, there are times when it is impossible to download or upload a single file during the course of an hour, which means that people must often pay a great deal for a service that does not even meet their needs. Those who do not have the means to pay for this service or to travel to where the service is available are cut off from internet access altogether.
Fortunately, the country will soon have fibre optic connectivity. The Republic of Congo is scheduled to be connected to the SAT-3/WASC fibre optic cable during 2009 and operational in 2011. This submarine cable stretching along the west coast of Africa required an investment of USD 15 million from each of the nations interconnected with it. The Republic of Congo has already invested USD 10 million, and much of the infrastructure (communications highways) interconnecting the interior of the country and big cities has yet to be laid out
An inadequate legal framework
However, access to infrastructure is not the only challenge facing the country. Roméo Mbengu of AZUR Développement, a Congolese NGO that works in the field of ICTs for development, says that the country’s current ICT-related legislation is inadequate. He offered numerous examples of the legislation’s inability to deal with problems faced by private sector operators, such as the unfair competition posed by private operators from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) operating in the Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) without authorisation. It is also not uncommon for subscribers in Brazzaville to be erroneously connected to the Zain mobile network in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, and unable unable to make or receive calls for periods of up to an entire day. Additionally, as is the case in Benin, it is quite common for people to have several SIM cards, some of which only work for a few days, the length of a special promotional offer.
Mbengu adds that the regulatory framework is also inadequate with regard to the taxes that operators are obliged to pay, which can have repercussions for the population. One of these repercussions is the lack of high-speed internet service at an affordable price. There are actually several factors that contribute to this particular problem: the lack of sufficient infrastructure countrywide; the total lack of service in rural areas; the high cost of connectivity; and the lack of any type of exchange points for internet service providers in the Republic of Congo, despite a number of efforts to bring together service providers and decision makers around this issue.
In December 2008, a national reflection workshop organised by the government of the Congo, with participation fromthe World Bank, SOTELCO, the national regulation authority and PRATIC, placed emphasis on the deployment of high-speed infrastructure and the creation of a national coordinating committee and a “road map” for a national ICT policy and cyber-strategy for the country. It will now be up to the new government administration to implement this strategy, which is currently held up at the legislative level: “There is much to be done to move forward and implement the strategy, but there are still many legal aspects that are not implemented because it is stuck at the ministry level,” added Missidimbazi.
Robust reform of the sector
Clearly, above and beyond the establishment of infrastructure, a good many changes are needed with regard to legislation. In a report prepared by AZUR Développement as part of APC’s CICEWA project, Mbengou and his colleagues highlight changes that are also needed at both the government and civil society levels. These include the need for strategies for building telecommunications infrastructure as well as policies for their development and management. Also needed is a flexible regulatory framework that will help to foster the expansion of the telecommunications sector. And of course, there is also an urgent need for an independent regulatory agency, which would contribute to lowering the costs of interconnection among operators. For its part, civil society is responsible for providing technical support for the development of telecommunications infrastructure and ensuring that international standards are applied in the sector. It should also advocate for lower service costs and contribute to providing training in the use of ICTs by the general public.
The Congolese people also have a responsibility to contribute to the debate on the role of ICTs in the country and to voice their concerns, in order to develop a legitimate and effective national ICT policy. A survey conducted by PRATIC in 2008 found that the population is becoming increasingly aware of ICTs, and that individuals and businesses are merely waiting for a policy that will give them access to these technologies.
It will now be up to the newly re-elected government of Dennis Sassou Nguesso to take these recommendations into account and above all to choose the right person to head the telecoms sector. Missidimbazi noted that the country’s politicians are now well aware of the importance of ICTs for social and economic development, as well as their importance in sectors like education and health. Now that the stage is set, a leader who fully understands what is at stake is essential for the continuation of the process.
This article is part of APC’s Communication for influence in Central, East and West Africa (CICEWA) project, which is meant to promote advocacy for the affordable access to ICTs for all. CICEWA seeks to identify the political obstacles to extending affordable access to ICT infrastructure in Africa and to advocate for their removal in order to create a sound platform for sub-regional connectivity in East, West and Central Africa.