Submarine cables for Africa and monopolies in 2006

By APCNews     Mombasa, 30 December 2006

In March 2006, APC organised a consultation in Mombasa, Kenya to bring together key stakeholders who could have an influence on the model that the consortium might choose. “A few weeks before the event, it became clear that the level of interest was much higher than expected. Last minute requests to participate came unexpectedly from groups that had no previous contact, so that on the day, instead of the initially expected 30 participants, a total of 90 arrived”, said APC policy manager Willie Currie. Participants came from Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. The meeting received extensive coverage in African and international media and APC launched the Fibre for Africa website to provide information on access to infrastructure in Africa.

After a day of debate the meeting participants decided that the concerns about the EASSy process should be taken up with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Subsequently, NEPAD, East and Southern African governments, regulators and the EASSy consortium agreed to a set of policy and regulatory conditions for EASSy, which were contained in a protocol agreed to in principle by a meeting of communications ministers from fifteen member states on 6 June 2006. A process for formal ratification of the protocol by participating governments was also put in motion.

The South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable (SAT-3/WASC) is a submarine communications cable linking Portugal and Spain to South Africa, with connections to several West African countries along the route. APC together with partners convened a workshop for the Communications Regulators’ Association of Southern Africa (CRASA) in Johannesburg on 24-25 July 2006 on the SAT-3/WASC/SAFE submarine cable to address what happens when national monopolies end, and what this means for regulators.

The African regulators, policy advisors, operators, businesspeople, civil society delegates, and consumer lobby groups attending the meeting issued a media statement which stated that SAT-3 prices must come down significantly and ultimately be aligned with costs in order to encourage the full and proper adoption of broadband access, so that its competitive, economic and developmental potential can be realised. The statement also stressed that future regulatory decisions regarding SAT-3 should be in the interests of the industry as a whole and the African consumer, rather than in the sole interest of any single operator or consortium of operators.

In November 2006, APC together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) convened a workshop in Johannesburg for dialogue and exchange on promising options and critical issues for national policy and advocacy on “open access” at local and national levels.

The workshop brought together almost 40 practitioners, advocacy groups and selected policy makers and regulators from Southern and Eastern Africa, who shared an interest in the concept and application of open access, in terms of national and “first-mile” infrastructure, as well as in related notions of “community-driven networks”, i.e. local level community-owned networks capable of providing ICT services and internet access along with low-cost voice over internet protocol (VoIP) service for use by local communities unable to afford mobile telephony.

The pressure of initiatives like the workshops with CRASA and the UNDP and the signing of the NEPAD protocol on EASSy has indirectly caused a downward trend on prices on SAT-3 as the operating consortium tries to preempt regulatory intervention to lower prices. The SAT-3 monopoly ends in 2007 and the South African government announced in early 2007 that it would take steps to regulate the SAT-3 landing station near Cape Town as an essential service, which would open it to access by competing telecom operators in South Africa.

The next steps are to explore the possibility of developing pilot community-based networks in the four East African countries where UNDP research shows there is a viable technical business plan.