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Thursday, February 09, 2006

SAT-3 and affordable bandwidth

Features of the week:

Lack of competition in the SAT-3 submarine cable is hampering growth of access and afforability of bandwidth on the continent, reports REMMY NWEKE.

Four years on
JUST four years ago, on Monday, May 27, 2002, when the Senegalese President, Mr. Abdoulaye Wade-led African leaders to establish the SAT-3 submarine cable, stakeholders were joyful that at least, Africans and their leaders particularly are making in roads that would see to the problem of low bandwidth, even if not on the continent, but for the sub-region of the West Africa.

This joy seems to be short lived as four years after, the cost of bandwidth is still impediment to the access growth of Internet in the region and generality of Africa.

Described as the foremost global undersea optic fibre cable system around the continent onto Europe and Asia, SAT-3 also known as third channeled to West Africa submarine cable to South Africa, Far East and Europe (SAT3/WASC/SAFE), is a cable system that is certainly a technology and commercial breakthrough of unparalleled significance for the continent.

It is proposed to offer a faster, more efficient trading channel between the continent and international markets.

Historically, SAT3/WASC/SAFE is a feat made possible by the participation of 36 nations, with majority of the landings located in African states. Together they have fully funded the undersea cable system costing more than US$600 million and will own and operate it for the next 25 years.

These results in much of the revenue it generates being ploughed back into the continent. This is a major departure from the current scenario, where many African countries rely on foreign operators to route their international traffic, which outcome is in revenue generated in Africa, leaving Africa.

This project will help bridge the digital divide between Africa and the developed nations and all the role-players will enjoy the access to knowledge brought about by the information revolution that has already had such a dramatic impact in the West, Europe, and the Far East. It will bring the people of Africa the fast, efficient and affordable communications they need for sustained development and progress.

Spearheaded by Telkom South Africa, contributions from state-owned national carriers like the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL), the project has engendered a co-operative spirit among so many diverse nations, supporting Africa’s growing telecommunications requirements, as it is predicted to also provide a secure, reliable alternate traffic route between Western Europe, the Americas and Asia.

Optic fibre cable on the other hand, is a plastic or glass fibre with a diameter almost the same as or even smaller than that of a human hair used to transmit information using infra-red or even visible light, usually a laser, according to www.mcmaster.ca/cis/ctl/glossary.htm.

Underutilised
Lamenting underutilisation of SAT-3 recently in an opening address to a workshop on “Achieving Affordable Bandwidth in West and Central Africa” the Executive Director, Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), Mrs. Nana Tanko, noted that it is a fact that over $600 million has exchanged hands in terms of repatriation done annually to telcos outside the continent whereas these funds could be used to revive some basic connectivity issues in the regions, only if the SAT-3 is optimised.

“It is true that the SAT-3/WASC infrastructure is nearing its mid-life but is yet underutilized,” she decried. Stressing that the tele-density, which is the ratio of telephone per 100 persons on the continent is still far lower than in most states in the United States (US).

She remembered that at the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the issues of Internet Governance (IG) were raised with Africa again taking the sidelines in deliberations or not being considered at all in the final outcomes of the summit.

“We see ourselves and our governments increasingly involving in global politics that should be seen to be transparent and inclusive but the outcomes generally favor certain organizations, countries, cartels or groups,” she observed, describing the idea of achieving affordable bandwidth as a tall order for the continent.

Mrs. Tanko highlighted that these issues are disturbing as well as the fact that there may be existing solutions to the questions of connectivity, access to information and the rights of access of an average citizen to information.

Although Nigeria missed out of such a workshop on affordable bandwidth officially, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) programme officer at OSIWA, Mr. Ben Akoh, said that the workshop was aimed at boosting ICT infrastructure in West and Central Africa.

What’s bandwidth
The term ‘bandwidth’ according to Mr. Chris Sterm of CS Designs, is used dominantly by electrical engineers to make reference to the frequency range of an analog signal. For the Internet community, he said, the term ‘bandwidth’ is used loosely to refer to channel capacity or the bit rate of a link, which simply could be described as the resources a site uses on the computer where the server is hosted.

But for the I.T. Store 2 Options, ‘bandwidth’ technically amounts to data that could be transmitted in a fixed amount of time. For digital devices, experts at I.T. Store, the bandwidth is usually expressed in bits or bytes per second (bps), while for analog devices, bandwidth is expressed in cycles per second or Hertz (Hz).

Experts at the Internet Guide online, explained ‘bandwidth’ as amount of data that could be transferred through a computer, while connected to the Internet for a given time. Noting that the higher the bandwidth thus connected, the quicker web pages would load and downloads to be uploaded.

Shared access formula
Executive director of Kafanchan-based ICT driven Fantsuam Foundation, Dr John Dada, disclosed recently that in order to survive the high cost of having access to bandwidth, his organisation has embraced what he called a “shared access formula”.

This, he said, has become a cultural norm in bridging the hard biting digital divide mostly in the rural areas of Africa and Fantsuam Foundation in the rural northern Nigeria is banking on it to reduce cost of access.

Dr. Dada also said that though the foundation struggles to pay estimated $1,800, monthly on Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) access, it has become relevant to share access with other local organisations to empower the villagers and at the same time contributing in closing the gap between the advanced countries and bringing the rural communities closer to the cities in respect of technology usage.

“We are strategically located in Kafanchan,” he said, emphasising that the reason the foundation was set up in a rural area was to be closer to the people which stimulates how the organisation intervenes by contribution to the development of the community, noting that disposal income varies according to communities.

“A community that has road access (what quality?), electricity, telephone, hosts a post office, a secondary school and health clinic is richer than one that does not have these. Graded pricing of services, pay what is affordable, and subsidize the balance via community leaders and understanding,” he explained.

Dr. Dada also said that the current service in use at the foundation is being managed by Emperion, VSAT service provider, even as this, were after trying other products such as Bgan and Arabian telecom.

Overpricing SAT-3 bandwidth
Responding to affordable bandwidth and the effect of SAT-3 so far, President, Nigeria Internet Group (NIG), Mr. Lanre Ajayi, said that SAT-3 has lost initial momentum as it was expected to crash the cost of bandwidth in Africa, especially where it has landing points like Nigeria.

In tandeem with Mrs. Tanko that SAT-3 is underutilized presently, Mr. Ajayi who also is the chief executive of PiNet Information Limited, attributed this to lack of competition, saying that daily Nigerians join the fray of Internet enthusiasts, thereby increasing data demands on the Internet from this part of the globe, of which bandwidth to accelerate the required local content uploads is not there despite the establishment of SAT-3 over four years ago.

Describing this as unfortunate, Mr. Ajayi said, the cost of getting bandwidth from SAT-3 is very expensive than anticipated via satellite, that is, the VSAT. Linking this to monopoly in most African countries including Nigeria and is more reason most people if they are not going for VSAT, are keeping the already bandwidth close to their hearts.

“Unfortunately, the SAT-3 consortium has over priced the assets,” he decried, pointing out that till date, only a handful of people are accessing these bandwidth through NITEL’s SAT-3 cable, and that even the commercial access providers under the aegis of the Internet Service Providers Association of Nigeria (ISPAN) has advanced initiative to buy this telecommunication ‘gold mine’ in bulk has not materialised but on-going.

Under this arrangement, ISPAN members, he said, could buy at about $3,500 per megabyte per month (pmpm) approximated 50 per cent reduction from what individuals could purchase at about $6,500 pmpm. Just as he agreed that this price could be driven further downwards if the competition is there.

Local investors’ therapy
Chief executive, technology-based research firm in Lagos, eShekels Limited, Mr. Fola Odufuwa, while suggesting solution urged African entrepreneurs to invest on submarine cable and satellite so as to avail bandwidth competition in the ICT sector, in the region.

He said, non-_expression of interest on satellite or submarine cables by African industrialists have kept the cost of bandwidth very high on the continent and particularly in the sub-Sahara.

Lack of interest by African investors, he said, has contributed adversely on satellite or the submarine cable infrastructural investment in the region, in addition to non-liberalisation of the sector.

According to him, on the continent, there are just two sources of providing bandwidth supply, namely through the submarine cable SAT-3 also known as from Atlantis to Dakar and the rest are covered by satellite. Currently, he said, there are about six fleets of satellites all over Africa none of which is owned by an African businessman or woman.

Thus the rate being paid for bandwidth on the continent for now, is therefore, several times above what is obtained in developed economies. Maintaining that in Africa, cost of bandwidth is very, very high, while in the developed countries, they pay quite low prices for Internet access.

“Suppliers have a power, and are exhibiting significant market power because there are few of them and there is no competition,” he said, citing SAT-3 as an instance, which is just one and is even in the hands of incumbent operators, which is usually the national carriers.

“Who have no reason beyond social responsibilities for most of them, who have no commercial reason to maximize the investment,” he declared.

Mr. Odufuwa also said that by allowing consumer and offering lower prices in order to have high volume of people these incumbent operators could still have some margins or even better margins.

Pointing out the need to liberalise the availability of bandwidth very quickly by fibre optic investment through authorizing and encouraging people who have the resources to invest and install submarine cables.

“SAT-3 cost about $250 million connecting South Africa to Portugal, now you can install the same work with one-third of that price,” he said. Emphasising that these are things Africans could do without going cap in hand to any donor agency or World Bank before such a project could take off.

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