Publisher: APCNews CALGARY, 13 October 2009
Since July 2009, Niger and its neighbouring countries such as Benin, Togo and Nigeria have suffered an internet blackout owing to damage to the undersea SAT-3 cable, which links Europe to South Africa via several West African countries, giving them access to high-speed internet. The SAT-3 cable has no landing point in Niger, which is landlocked, but it does land in Benin, a bordering country through which Niger is connected, and which was logically also affected by damage to the cable. Niger and its neighbours, thus found themselves without a connection, with Niger being at Benin’s mercy with regard to reconnection. In the absence of a decent backup system, there is nothing that the citizens of Niger could do in the face of this impasse – 70% of their bandwidth is via Benin. Why does Niger depend exclusively on Benin for its connection, when an alternative (and temporary) satellite solution would have minimised the gravity of the situation?
Niger’s dependence on Beninese infrastructure may be attributed to the fact that Benin, a coastal country, owns the SAT-3 fibre optic cable which, provides Niger’s high speed connection, enabling an increase in speed from 25 Mb/s to 155 Mb/S. The traditional national operator, SONITEL, manages this link, without which Niger would have to resort to satellite connections which are practically non-existent and unaffordable, and therefore inconceivable as an everyday connectivity solution. Powerless in the face of this situation, it became a waiting game for Niger, while the cable ship dispatched to sea by Benin and the SAT-3 consortium from South Africa embarked on repairs.
Lessons learned from technical failure
Although for the time being, Niger has had to wait for cable repairs, recently reported to have been completed – it’s hoped that a lesson will have been learned. “This cable breakdown has led to the realisation that Niger’s telecommunications mechanisms are vulnerable,” explains Mr. Adamou Iro, a legal expert in the capital Niamey. “Emphasis must therefore be placed on the importance of having a backup plan, and especially the need to develop the fibre optic span with Burkina Faso.”
The SAT-3 is in effect the only cable available for high-speed internet connections. If SONITEL is not prepared to pay the exorbitant costs for an alternative satellite connection, the only other options have to come from an agreement with the telecoms operators in neighbouring countries for alternative connection methods.
Currently SONITEL has no emergency plan in place. According to Mr. Iro, the reason for SONITEL’s lack of a backup plan is related to internal management and human resources problems. SONITEL would normally be penalised by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (Autorité de Régulation des Télécommunications – ARM) for a public service breakdown, as provision should reasonably have been made for an alternative solution or plan to minimise the breakdown time. It is the duty of ARM and the government to ensure that a strategic plan and mechanisms are developed and available to deal with such situations. The fact that a company of its size had no emergency backup plan reflects a lack of competency and human resources, or inexcusable technical liability.
However, the connectivity problems in Niger go beyond a damaged cable – in fact, nearly 80% of rural communities in Niger still have no access to even basic communications services such as mobile or fixed telephones, let alone the internet. Nevertheless, the demand is there: the mobile telephony rate has increased from 4.6% in 2005 to 19.5% in 2008. The rate in the rural areas, which are hardly serviced, increased from 1.4% to 12.9% for the same period, according to the Niger Statistics Institute (Institut Nigérien de la Statistique – INS). In spite of these advances, the telecommunications situation in Niger is far from satisfactory. According to research carried out by Mr. Iro within the framework of the Communication for influence in Central, East and West Africa (CICEWA) project by the Association for Progressive Communications, there are basic problems at the level of the Telecommunications Policy Declaration dating back to 1999, which is totally outdated with regard to the objectives assigned to the public authorities in this sector. This has resulted in cautious development of the sector in the country, and inadequate infrastructure and inappropriate prices charged by operators.
A step towards action
It is evident that deficiencies in the telecommunications sector have been noted but, strangely, the reforms initiated in 1999 did not lead to implementation of the necessary changes. Why, and who is responsible for these deficiencies?
Reform of the telecommunications sector in Niger, and especially the privatisation of SONITEL, the traditional operator, were failures. In an attempt to modernise the country’s infrastructures and create a healthy sector in a competitive environment, SONITEL initiated a reform process of over 13 billion Facfa (28,963,745.147). However, the infrastructure is still obsolete and, as explained by Mr. Iro, “SONITEL even cancelled some contracts with international suppliers such as satellite providers which should have been an alternative solution when the SAT-3 fibre optic cable broke down.”
Twelve years after these reforms, the population and government of Niger and the traditional operator personnel have had to face a failure which could have been avoided if all the stakeholders had played their roles responsibly. Complaints by consumers as well as public authorities about privatisation of the traditional operator have reproached the new agency, LAICO (the entity in charge of privatising and restructuring SONITEL) for not having complied with their mandate. Several areas, particularly rural areas, have no coverage, communications tariffs have not significantly decreased, and continue to be out of the reach of most citizens of Niger. The reform to liberalise the sector has not truly initiated competition in favour of the consumer and teledensity is still very low.
The Trade Unions Group from the telecommunications sector, which does not intend to stay silent in the face of this situation, has frequently raised the alarm, and ended up by concluding that the reforms, especially the privatisation of SONITEL, were failures. One of the most obvious conclusions drawn by the citizens of Niger with regard to this situation is: That management of the current efforts is not taking into account the technological interests or, even less, the economic and financial interests of the State of Niger, the people or the SONITEL personnel.
In his report, Mr. Iro writes: “In fact, neither the Regulatory Authority nor the Ministry of Communication has taken the initiative in developing and ensuring the adoption of statutory instruments essential to the effective penalisation of operators in non-compliance with their mandates. That is why, to date, several formal demands sent by the Regulatory Authority to the various telecommunications operators have been practically ineffective, and not followed by punitive measures.”
If this is the situation with competition and regulation of the telecommunications sector, it is not really surprising that the latter has been unable to foresee how to minimise the country’s dependence on Beninese infrastructure for its high-speed connection in the event of a breakdown.
This article was written as a 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.