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A peaceful EASSy feeling

How could someone who’s passionate about connectivity in the developing world be opposed to a fiber-optic cable designed to make bandwidth cheaper in East Africa?

I’ve had to ask myself this question dozens of times in the past couple of years. Fortunately, recent developments on the EASSy (East African Submarine cable System) project have gone a long way to address my reservations about the project and I’m happy to celebrate the recent news that the cable will operate under an Open Access model.

Explaining why open access is important for EASSy requires some background on telecoms in Africa, a topic that’s vastly more interesting than you think, I promise. Hang in there – this stuff is really important:

Historically, sub-Saharan Africa has been connected to the rest of the global Internet via wireless connectivity – large or small satellite dishes that bounce data off geosyncronous satellites to dishes in the US or Europe. The data enters the internet from these off-continent data centers and is transmitted from there to the rest of the world. The one exception to this rule is South Africa, which has had data connections via undersea cables to Europe and the Middle East.

Satellite connectivity has upsides and downsides. On the upside – you can put a dish anywhere in the footprint of a satellite and transmit data – you don’t need to be near the coast to connect to an undersea cable. And you can build your own infrastructure, which is hugely useful in countries where telecommunications is heavily controlled by the government and inadequately developed.

But the downsides are myriad. Satellite connectivity includes a mandatory speed of light delay of roughly half a second per packet, making it difficult to offer real-time services like Voice over IP. (Not that this has stopped countless African entrepreneurs.) Because the internet access terminates on a different continent, it’s likely that two people in the same African city communicating via email are routing their packets through the US, travelling tens of thousands of kilometers out of the way to have a chat across town. (If you’re curious about this, you might check out “Internet Architecture and Institutions“, a teaching document Andrew McLaughlin and I developed years ago to teach people about internet connectivity.) And satellite connectivity, bit for bit, is more expensive than fiberoptic cable connectivity.

Map of undersea cables in use at the end of 2004 – from news.com

Africa took a big step – quite possibly a misstep – forward when the SAT3/WASC/SAFE (South Africa Telecom 3 / West Africa Submarie Cable / South Africa Far East) cable came into operation in 2002. The cable connects eight west African nations to landing points in Spain and Portugal, where it connects to terrestrial cable networks, and to South Africa, where the cable interconnects to the SAFE cable, which terminates in Malaysia.

A stated goal of the SAT-3 cable was the reduction of connectivity costs to nations connected to the cable – costs dropped, but not nearly as sharply as anyone had anticipated. The problem wasn’t a technical one – it was a political and economic one. The consortium of telephone companies that commissioned and built the cable included the dominant telephone companies – usually state-owned monopolies, or recently privatized providers – who determined that access to the cable be limited to consortium members. If I ran a telephone company in Ghana that competed with Ghana Telecom, I had to purchase access to SAT-3 via GT, my competitor… and needless to say, Ghana Telecom did not have a strong incentive to provide me with competitively priced bandwidth or swift service.

Ghana was lucky enough to have a powerful and effective ISP association, GISPA, which helped negotiate more reasonable prices from Ghana Telecom for competitive businesses. Things were more complicated in Nigeria, where upstart Globacom, realizing it couldn’t negotiate with incumbent telco Nitel, and tried to buy a share in the consortium so they could build their own fiber connection to the cable – Nitel blocked this move, and Globacom began looking into building their own cable to London… a phenomenally wasteful and stupid situation, as SAT-3 has tremendous underutilized capacity.

So when plans began to take shape for an East African cable to parallel SAT-3, people involved with African bandwidth issues (all two dozen of us) started making noise about the EASSy business model. Ronald Alden wrote the decisive paper – Just say No to EASSy – arguing that the $200 million project could be a step backwards for Africa as it reinforce the failed cartel model that SAT-3 introduced.

At least two schools of thought developed around EASSy. One suggested that it was important to ensure that universities have a seat at the table to ensure their interests were protected in a cartel situation. This group founded the Ubuntunet Alliance, which seeks high speed broadband connectivity for African universities – Ubuntunet’s plan has been to purchase a stake in the EASSy cable, ensuring affordable broadband for the universities, and increased transparency on the project, as universities would be more likely to share cost and pricing information than private companies.

The other school of thought suggested that pressure be put on international donors not to support the EASSy cable unless any organization could purchase bandwidth from the cable owners. This “open access” approach argued that connectivity was too important for African development to allow a cartel situation to evolve, and attempted to use World Bank and NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) monies to shape the policy.

(These two schools of thought weren’t neccesarily opposed – many people supported open access but thought that Ubuntunet was a wise tactical move…)

According to a recent article by Elias Biryabarema in the Monitor (Kampala), the open access folks have won the day. “Any telecom company or institution” will be able to buy into the cable and access bandwidth, not just companies with “international gateway licenses”, the license granted by a government to companies to engage in international telephone voice traffic.

According to this arrangement, the cable would be owned and operated by the so-called Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV)-a company created specifically to manage the network and establish the pricing structure for the bandwidth.

An Intergovernmental Assembly (IGA) is to be formed to regulate the costs that the SPV will be charging user companies.

As always, the devil is in the details – will this IGA price access in a way that small telcos can afford it, or will there be large upfront fees? Will dominant telcos pull out of the agreement for fear that they won’t be able to charge enough money? I’m waiting for Russell Southwood, the dean of Africa telecoms analysts, to weigh in on his Balancing Act newsletter… but in the meantime, I’m happy to cheer this apparent victory in a very important battle that gets basically zero international media coverage.

16 thoughts on “A peaceful EASSy feeling”

  1. The prices go back and forth, Kwasi. I have info from dozens of people in the Ghana ISP industry… they’re significantly better than they were and lower than they are in other SAT-3 nations where local businesses haven’t had as much success at lobbying the government. By no means do I suggest that bandwidth in Ghana is at the price it should be… but the situation in Ghana is better than it is in several other nations.

  2. Ethan, thanks for reporting on this development. This is good news indeed, especially for those of us who are doing web development aimed at Africa.

  3. They may be better than they are in several other places Ethan, but that comparison is a lot like praising kids who get all D’s in school because their classmates get F’s.

    Its less of a cause to celebrate than cause to be depressed at how badly everyone is doing.

    At the moment Ghana is still using at most 15 – 20% of the capacity of the SAT3 (according to an ex GT engineer I know) while charging prices for broadband access that put it in reach of maybe the top .5% of Ghanaian households and businesses.

    In order for it to make any kind of impact we’ll need to do a lot better than that

  4. The “Ds vs. Fs” analogy is a good one, Kwasi – I’d agree with that. SAT-3 is overpriced and underutilized in every nation – Ghana’s marginally better than others, but it’s still a major problem. One of the main reasons I’m so excited about EASSy is that it will make it possible to argue for an open access model for SAT-3 when the agreement renewal comes up…

  5. Good point.

    AITI is apparently also trying to lobby the government about this. Hence, I’ll get some latitude when i write about it and the unused fiber that is currently sitting in the country while we contract China to lay more.

    Just out of curiosity when does the agreement come up for renewal?

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  7. Here in Malawi we are desperately waiting for an EASSy redemption of our bandwidth problem. We don’t have a single piece of wire crossing any border of our landlocked country. It is all overly contended and overpriced VSATs. At any rate, I wanted to point out the latest developments:

    The EASSy saga, which has had more twists and turns than a mountain road, took what may be a final turn. Kenya Data Networks announced that it has secured a separate deal with Flag Telecom to build a spur from off the cost of Yemen to Mombasa. The deal is believed to be worth US$115 million and the pipe will be built before EASSy was planning to come on stream. And the cost of the bandwidth? An eye-wateringly low figure of around US$150 per mbps per month for Mombasa to London. Russell Southwood spoke to KDN’s CEO Kai Wulff this week about how it will work.

    Read all about it: http://www.balancingact-africa.com/news/current1.html

  8. Thanks so much for this information, I am currently doing a market research on doing business in Ghana. One of my main questions is, What is the amount of fiber optic cable currently run into the region?

  9. The main point of access, Lesia, is the SAT-3 cable, which has very large capacity, most of it unutilized. I don’t know the specific bandwidth available, but you might be able to find that out from searches about SAT-3. Some countries, like Ghana, have terrestrial fiber that could interconnect with SAT-3, but I don’t know of any other international fiber in west Africa other than SAT-3.

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    it will securty issues

  12. While large in relative terms (when compared to number of internet users in Africa at present), SAT-3 has nowhere near enough capacity if internet connectivity really takes off (but then, it won’t at the currently charged prices :P).

    For some perspective, Southern Cross (NZ + Aus only) cable to US is being upgraded to 840Gbps, and has final capacity of 2.6 Tbps.

    That’s for a combined population of 24 million people. True, they have more broadband users, and probably higher percentages of people with connectivity, but come on.

    You can’t tell me that more Africans will not go online if rates drop to levels for ex. in Aus/NZ (and comparatively speaking their rates are high for the nations they are compared againts).

    The SAT-3 guys are being lazy, corrupt, and screwing Africa out of its digital future.

    It’s so frustrating, when the limitation is largely crappy policy. The market is there. Stupid fat cats :(

  13. Interesting to read your little story. I hope there have been some big developments in the last couple of years for Africa. Seifen

  14. I´m doing with a friend of me a project about a similar topic. That´s why we have to do a small survey about the topic Internet connection in africa. Can you and your Community helb us to get information about the current situation in africa.And it would be interesting, when you can tell us, what you are paying all month for the internet access.
    That´s the link to the internt survey:

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