That too Will Help Spark Economic Growth and Modernity.
By Dr. Darren Wilkins (Email: DWilkins@SaharaTechnology.Com Tel: 0777129092 & 0886703789)
As part of his vision for Liberia, President Dr. George M. Weah has expressed his determination to improve the infrastructure of the country (roads in particular), thus connecting the entire nation for economic development. His determination and passion to achieve his goals are, unparalleled and unwavering, as we have come to realize. Quite frankly, I am optimistic that he will achieve this by the fourth year of his Presidency, if not earlier. No doubt, connecting the country through paved roads will kindle significant economic growth in Liberia. New businesses will emerge, and major economic activities will occur, especially in those areas benefiting from the paved roads, sustainable electricity, etc.
Another move by the President that has won my heart and the hearts of many Liberians living in rural areas, is his mandate for the construction of housing projects in those areas (rural Liberia). What’s even more commendable, if I may, is his mandate that those housing projects be built, equipped with solar power capabilities. What I garner from his actions since he took over, is that he wants to bring a level of modernity to our beloved country; something I believe, all Liberians support.
Now, the President could also go beyond the building of roads and housing projects by building the much needed national telecommunications backbone, to bring affordable broadband access to the entire country. Building the national backbone concomitantly with other planned utility infrastructure projects (roads, power grids, etc.), can certainly reduce the costs. According to a feasibility study (Done by the World Bank, I believe) of the national backbone, and results from subsequent stakeholders’ meetings, a national backbone with resilient loops covering 90% of the population (roughly 4000km) will cost around or over $65 million. Again, this depends on the extent to which utility infrastructure projects are used to cut the cost of civil works. Currently, the West African Power Pool (WAPP) is going on in the rural areas, building the national backbone now, would reduce some costs. But what is this national backbone all about and how does it benefit Liberia/ns? Below, I provide some details.
In 2010, Liberia took a $25.6 million loan from the World Bank to join a “Consortium” for the landing of the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine fiber optic cable. The ACE cable would connect Liberia to the digital world, provide affordable broadband access for its citizens and residents, and kindle and drive economic growth, through programs like e-government, e-commerce, e-health, e-agriculture, etc. The ACE cable landed in November 2011 and became operational in January of 2013. It offered Liberia its first international Internet gateway, thus increasing access and use of the internet in the country. Since then, we have made significant progress in leveraging it (ACE Cable) in Monrovia and a few miles outside of the city. Yet, we have we have not been able to transcend Monrovia and its suburbs for citizens in other areas to benefit from the Cable. One reason for this is our inability to build a national backbone that connects major cities in the country and allow those in the rural areas considered, “un-served”, “underserved” and “marginalized”, to benefit from the ACE cable. Meanwhile, we are expected to start paying on the $25.6 million loan at some point, if not now, even though the Cable has been and is still greatly UNDERUTILIZED.
Let’s backtrack a moment. In 2010 France Telecom-Orange initiated the ACE Submarine Communications Cable Project that would run from France to South Africa. This was in addition to the already deployed SAT-3 cable that our neighbor Cote d’Ivoire, had been benefitting from. The ACE Cable is a 17000 km-long submarine fiber –optic cable system that was financed with an investment of approximately $700 million and administered by a consortium. Liberia is a member of this consortium. The initial number of members connected to the cable or part of the consortium was 18 African countries; including Liberia. The capacity of the cable at the time was 5.1 Terabits. Today, that capacity has been upgraded.
For Liberia to secure membership to the ACE consortium, an agreement was reached between the Government of Liberia, LIBTELCO and two other private-sector operators (Cellcom, now Orange and Lonestar MTN). This was a public-private partnership (PPP). The World Bank supported the GoL’s membership to the Consortium and later provided a loan of $25.6 million. This amount was for the cost of membership in the ACE consortium, administrative costs, and capacity building. This loan is expected to be paid back at some point, as I mentioned earlier.
The $25.6 million loan had three components: The first and the largest portion of $21 million covered the cost of Internet connectivity, primarily the cost of membership in the ACE Consortium. The second component which was US$3.32 million, covered the cost of formulating and implementing policies, regulations and institutional arrangements to support long-term Internet connectivity. The third component of US$1.28 million, covered project expenses, including a project-implementation unit (PIU) based at the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), our national regulator.
The GoL owns 55% shares in the ACE Cable’s distribution, LIBTELCO owns 20%, while Orange owns 10% and Lonestar MTN owns 15%. The GoL’s capacity is still sitting there; unused! The others are simply underutilized. Without a national fiber optic backbone the Cable may never be utilized to its full potential and folks in the rural areas my not benefit from it. Hence, the deployment of a national backbone is necessary at this time to drive demand for the ACE’s capacity. It will lead to a national fiber optic network that connects all cities within the country, thereby enabling last mile penetration to un-served and underserved areas. This also is in line with the Government’s Universal Access Policy. Moreover, the national backbone will facilitate better and cheaper access to communications services, provide jobs for people in the fifteen counties, and bring improvement to our struggling economy.
While I ask the President and the Government to consider building the national backbone, I should state emphatically, that such an initiative requires a supportive environment facilitated by the Government, with participation from the private sector. This means, that GoL will utilize a Public Private Partnerships (PPP) approach in the deployment of a national backbone, and allow it to be managed under Open Access principles. In fact, this is something that was discussed earlier attracting interests from other players. Interest was shown by the African Development Bank, through its support for connectivity amongst the Mano River Union Member States (Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire), the ECOWAS’s Regional Infrastructure initiative, which considers building the ECOWAS Wide Area Network or ECOWAN, the World Bank (WARCIP), the African Union’s PIDA, and several others from the private sector, both local and international.
The development of a national backbone in Liberia is a matter of urgency, and a clear plan
that stimulates strong public/private sector collaboration to build out the national backbone must be developed and explored in order to better utilize the spare capacity in the ACE submarine cable.
If a PPP is considered, appropriate institutional mechanisms for management and operation of the national backbone with consideration for the structuring it’s administration to ensure transparency and accountability should also be put in place. Again, I call on the President and the GoL to consider building the national backbone while building the roads because that’s when backbone ducting are cheaper to install. Otherwise, if we build the roads first and the backbone later, we will have to break the roads as is being done today, in the CSquared Metro fiber optic network project in Monrovia. And that would be another cost!
Finally, it is obvious that the telecommunications and ICT sector has seen a decline over the years; and this sector is supposed to be one of the “Cash Cow” sectors of our economy. Why the decline? Could the lack of a national fiber optic backbone be the reason? That’s it for today!
Until next week, Carpe diem!!!