Monday, August 20, 2007

Infighting plagues East African cable project


Kenya and South Africa face off: David Were (centre), Kenya’s deputy minister of communication, and Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri (right) at a press conference last year. M&G


Infighting plagues East African cable project
East African business will benefit from better cable access
16 August 2007
Source: Mail and Guardian Online

Political squabbles are dogging Africa's plans for undersea communications cables, reports Lloyd Gedye in the Mail and Guardian Online.
The continent needs new undersea data cables to improve bandwidth for broadband communications.
But the planned East African Submarine System (EASSy) could be split into four competing projects due to political infighting.
The South African and Kenyan governments have argued over whether EASSy should be controlled by the private sector, or an open access system — approved by the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) —where investors and non-investors are given international bandwidth access at the same price.
The result is that both have announced projects outside of the EASSy initiative: Kenya's US$110 million East African Marine System and the South Africa-led NEPAD Broadband Infrastructure Network.
EASSy could still be the first system operational. But while the two governments jostle to gain the support of African governments, another private initiative, Seacom, could beat them to it.
Meanwhile, the existing West African SAT-3 cable is rapidly running out of capacity and accused of charging exorbitant costs for bandwidth, so any delays to EASSy could be disastrous for African businesses.



No Eassy walk to cable freedom
Lloyd Gedye
23 July 2007 11:59
Africa’s east coast could go from having no undersea broadband cables to four. The planned East Africa Submarine System (Eassy), touted as the solution for the bandwidth-starved continent, has been plagued by political squabbles that have resulted in it splintering into four mooted cable projects.
The conflict between the South African and Kenyan governments has led to both announcing new cable projects outside the Eassy initiative, followed by the announcement of a private sector cable, Seacom, being rolled out by Sithe.
It is not surprising that African governments are trying to control the Eassy cable project, with the SAT-3 cable that runs down the west coast of Africa causing such a headache.
The consortium that controls the SAT-3 cable has exploited the lack of competition by charging exorbitant costs for international bandwidth, which has had a massive impact on the cost of doing business in Africa.
Complicating matters are the shortages of fibre optic cable and the ships that lay the cable, due to the large number of new fibre projects being laid in the Pacific.
The cable saga has festered for a year now and has been characterised by accusations and counter-accusations. With so many interested parties jockeying for position, the Mail & Guardian had to speak to a wide range of role-players who did not want to be named.
The Kenyan government was the first to throw a spanner in the Eassy works when it announced it was planning its own cable, The East African Marine System (Teams). The $110-million Teams cable is planned to run north from Kenya to Port Sudan. Kenya’s neighboring countries Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania have joined the Teams initiative.
The sticking point for the Kenyans is the South African government’s insistence that the Eassy project be driven through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) and that it adhere to the principles laid out in the Nepad broadband infrastructure protocol.
It appears Nepad is concerned about the structure of an open access model, insisting that investors and non-investors be given access to international bandwidth under the same conditions and at the same price.
Kenya argues that the administrative and financing structures of Eassy give too much control to governments, while it prefers a private-sector controlled model.
One analyst, who refused to be named, says the key problem is Dr Henry Chasia of Nepad’s e-Africa Commission, who crafted the Nepad protocol and is being obstinate about amending it.
“Several countries signed on the understanding that the protocol would subsequently be amended and are now heartily pissed off,” the analyst says. “One country [Zambia] signed, but the president subsequently sacked the minister. The Kenyans also see the way the protocol functions as giving the South Africans the whip hand over the whole thing.”
The analyst says that the latter is exacerbated by the fact that Chasia is married to the director general of the South African department of communications, Lyndall Shope-Mafole, and this means that he is tied so closely to the South Africans that there is little difference between the two of them.
Shope-Mafole says the fact that she might have a relationship with Chasia is not important. “I don’t see any conflict.”
The analyst says: “The e-Africa Commission is talking as if it has a separate project to Eassy. This is bollocks as it has not got the money, the expertise to commission the project or the will to complete it ahead of Seacom, Teams and Eassy.”
“Therefore, its ‘project’ will die on the vine and subsequently become one of those embarrassing things that no one can talk about,” the analyst says.
Erik Osiakwan, from the association of African internet service providers, says there is a perception that the Nepad cable is being driven by the South African government against the interests of Telkom South Africa, which is a major part of the Eassy cable.
Shope-Mafole says the Nepad cable is a partnership and is not being driven by the South Africans alone. “If you want to partner with us, you can, but don’t tell us how to do things,” Shope-Mafole says. “We are implementing Nepad’s protocol.”
Sources close to the Eassy secretariat have insinuated that the South African government is putting pressure on the South African telcos investing in the cable to withhold their funds. Shope-Mafole denies this claim.
South Africa is trying to get the majority of the original 23 countries that agreed to the Eassy project to sign the Nepad protocol. So far, only 12 have signed, with most still to get the protocol ratified by their parliaments.
Although the Eassy cable is set to go ahead, resistance to South Africa’s insistence that the process be driven through Nepad has led to an announcement of another cable project, The Nepad Broadband Infrastructure Network (NBIN).
This R300-million cable is said to be tied down by multi-government bureaucracy and, of all the mooted cables, analysts are predicting it will be the last to come online.
Presently, it looks as if the original $235-million Eassy cable could be the first to come online, with expectations that it will be ready for commercial operations in the fourth quarter of 2008.
The Eassy consortium signed a contract with French company Alcatel Lucent Submarine Networks in March 2007 and has concluded interconnection agreements with three cable systems to carry traffic to Africa, Europe and Asia.
Shope-Mafole insists that the contract signed with Alcatel Lucent is outside the policy framework set by the South African government.
“We were not happy with the South African companies that signed,” says Shope-Mafole, who has said openly that the communications department will use the South African government’s board influence at Telkom to stop it from going ahead with the contract.
Vodacom’s chief operating officer, Pieter Uys, told the M&G that the mobile giant has doubts about the business model being touted by the South African government.
Uys says the SAT-3 cable that runs down the west coast of Africa is running out of capacity and the delays to the Eassy cable could prove disastrous. “We desperately need international bandwidth in South Africa,” he says.
The private sector cable Seacom has entered the race. It is being driven by Sithe Global, a power plant constructor and operator, which is 80% owned by Blackstone, the United States private equity group.
Some analysts predict that while the squabbling continues, Seacom could come in the backdoor. Sithe’s Brian Herlihy was unavailable to elaborate on the Seacom cable project due to deadline constraints.
Numerous attempts to contact Chasia for comment were unsuccessful.

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