MONTREAL, Canada, 21 August 2007
“Feasibility study for an open internet backbone in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, this is what the ripened fruit has been called for close to a year by a team of seasoned researchers. François Ménard is one of those who were hands on in this exhaustive study. He is a project manager with the Canadian firm Xit Télécom. APCNews interviewed him on the subject of deploying a high-speed internet in Congo.
APCNews: You are interested in the DRC. Why?
FM: My perception is that the DRC is one of the last countries in the world without a backbone. It is also a vast country with the technical and financial capacities to obtain a backbone, if social and political stability hold together. It should be recognised that the DRC is engaged in unbelievable economic development through the hydro-electric system. It is therefore fully in a position to meet this challenge.
APCNews: The aim of this study is to get the internet into the furthest corners of the DRC, with the help of the still-lacking internet backbone. How is your firm equipped to study such an issue?
FM: We are an engineering consulting company. Feasibility studies are part of our line. We do the plans, permit applications, regulatory interventions and we are involved in the establishment of the infrastructure. We are trying to target internet deployments in particular.
We have already conducted a major feasibility study of the Pan Arab research and education network. This was an international backbone project in North Africa and the Middle East. However, the Congo study is one of our biggest projects. We’ve pulled out the big guns for that one.
We are also counting on experience with the private fibre optic network programme, "wired villages", which took place in Quebec with hundreds of school boards and libraries. Here, we did not bring down the wrath of the major telecommunication groups. On the contrary, they became partners, and it became a condominium project.
APCNews: A condominium project? What does that involve?
FM: We prefer to call the type of deployment suggested by this study a cost-sharing condominium project. In Africa, we like to say “open access”.
APCNews: What is the difference between the “open access” and “condominium” formulae?
FM: The open access concept does not necessarily involve cost sharing. A major operator is generally the sole proprietor, who then resells the service at preferential costs to partner operators.
Our model makes provision for an operator sharing the initial investment costs in an infrastructure with third parties, and the same for maintenance. I consider myself as Mr. Open Access, but the technical difficulties greatly exceed the good intentions. Usually, it is more profitable for each of the parties to take responsibility for his part of the investment, according to his technical needs, and that from day one.
APCNews: Do you have an example to give us?
FM: As co-owners of a network, partners can pool services. For example, it is possible to consolidate servers, telephones, and then cut expenses that are otherwise incurred for an under-used connection. Instead of 30 fibre optic internet lines for six schools, you could have ten lines, divided into three.
It is relatively easy to cover large distances on fibre optic, without having to invest too much. Previously, institutions left it up to telephone exchanges. Today, it is possible to cover 120km on dark fibre, so hops can be made. This involves fibre optic, owned by the client. This fibre is not turned on all the time, and is therefore dark. The speed of the connection depends of the user’s ability to pay.
APCNews: What do you recommend in this feasibility study
FM: Our study recommends a hybrid model, merging open access with condominium. This solution leaves a lot of latitude to the Congolese decision-makers. Our aim is to lay the facts on the table. What we are doing is precisely identifying the costs involved in internet deployment via fibre optic.
We provide the “hard data” and are convinced that our costs are realistic. Furthermore, our recommendations point towards costs far below those of all previous studies. The magic number is 500 million US dollars. This sum is below the mark set by international financial institutions, and the study proves for the first time that this is possible.
APCNews: But why does the DRC have a need for fibre optic?
FM: In the DRC, there seems to be a competition between the Posts and Telecommunications Office and wireless telephone operators who favour the development of internet via satellite. The reliability of service via satellite is not in question. However, in two-way communications, such as internet telephony, fibre optic is king. It is ten times fasters for a cost that is three to four times lower. No technological innovation is needed to reach this cruising speed.
Moreover, the electrification programme of the National Electricity Company (SNEL), together with Wi-Max technology, will clash with the plans of the private GSM mobile telephony operators.
SNEL is moreover a partner of choice. It would be very difficult to develop a fibre optic backbone in the DRC without the participation of SNEL. Its company mission is rural electrification, and this at infrastructure level [but only at 50% of the aim of the study]. It is aware that it has a role to play in this matter.
As an example, for the 2,500km of direct current on the Inga-Shaba line, we see that it is possible to use another type of fibre optic, ADSS, installed at a cost that is much lower than APGW towers. The costs of installing the fibre is less because the height at which is must be installed is lower, and maintenance is therefore easier.
APCNews: Who will carry out the work proposed in the study?
FM: These decisions belong to the Congolese people. The major challenge in the coming mandates is the creation of a national/international coalition to set the project in motion . Operators, SNEL and international players, must all sit around a table and discuss the modalities. The collaboration of a major international manufacturer is already at hand.
We, ourselves, may invest in the towers that still need to be built through our sister company, Xittel Telecommunications, which provides turnkey services. However, I imagine that a pilot project, probably in Kinshasa, should first prove itself.
In one way or another, Alternatives will have an important role to play in the future. This NGO has a conciliatory role, which is absolutely necessary with such a large number of stakeholders. The Alternatives team has brilliantly managed to make the connection between local and technical resources and the authorities. It can take all things into account, and balance the aims of the various stakeholders.
Comments collected by Frédéric Dubois for APCNews
Photo: François Ménard; courtesy of Xit telecom inc.