Who’s Digging In and Around Monrovia? The CSquared Monrovia Metro Fiber Optic Ring Project (AKA Google’s Project Link), And Its Impact on the GoL’s Pro-Poor Agenda.

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By Dr. Darren Wilkins (Email: [email protected]  Tel: 0777129092 & 0886703789)

For the past eight to ten months there have been several on-going (digging) works done in and around the City of Monrovia. These works are supposedly being done by different institutions including the Ministry of Public Works, the Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation (I stand corrected) and another group, which I know for sure, is involved in the deployment of terrestrial fiber optic cable. This terrestrial fiber optic cable deployment project is part of the construction of a metropolitan optical fiber “ring”, intended to facilitate access to the capacity (for broadband or high-speed internet connectivity), that is being provided via the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine fiber optic cable. But who is building this “RING”? Is it LIBTELCO, ORANGE, LONESTAR MTN, FACEBOOK or GOOGLE? In today’s article, I provide some information on Monrovia Metro Fiber Ring that is currently being built, and its socio-economic impact on Liberia. Hopefully, this will clarify the misconceptions that some Liberians have about the work that is being done around the City!

Before I go further, let me give you a brief history of what led to the building of what we now call the Monrovia Metro Fiber Ring or Google Ring. Around 2015, based on experiences gained from the Ebola outbreak (2014 and 2015), the Government of Liberia (GoL) saw the need to improve its fiber optic infrastructure as a vital part of its Economic Stabilization and Recovery plan. In so doing, the GoL was able to obtain additional $10M support from the US Government through U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to improve access to its digital infrastructure. The amount is also intended to support “connected programs in the areas of eGovernment, health information systems and digital financial inclusion.” Subsequently, a partnership between the GoL, USAID and Google was signed, to bring best-in-class, reliable, affordable broadband infrastructure to Monrovia.

The above-mentioned partnership led to the current deployment of terrestrial fiber optic cable around Monrovia, and it is being done by an “amalgam of companies” or partnership known as CSquared. CSquared is the offspring a four-way partnership formed by Google, to invest $100 million in a wholesale broadband infrastructure project, which aims to bring fast and reliable internet access to cities across Africa. This four-way partnership signed in October 2017, involved Google (a web/search engine giant), Convergence Partners (an ICT investment management company), International Finance Corporation or IFC (the Investment arm of the World Bank), and Mitsui & Co. of Japan.

CSquared offers carrier-neutral, open-access and acts as a wholesale provider of high-speed fiber in sub-Saharan Africa. It enables ISPs and MNOs to offer affordable high-quality broadband through shared infrastructure, such as metro fiber and Wi-Fi networks. CSquared is expected to use its $100 million expansion fund to roll-out and operate affordable, high-speed and reliable internet infrastructure to further expand internet access in Africa. It will be run independently with its headquarters based in Nairobi, Kenya. Currently, CSquare runs high-quality fiber networks in Uganda (800km) and Ghana (840km), with dozens of ISPs and mobile networks offering a range of services.

The current “initiative” (building of the metro ring) in Liberia, was initially introduced by GOOGLE (to cities in Uganda in 2013 and later to cities in Ghana), as part of its Project Link “program”. Project Link provides local internet service providers (ISPs) or mobile networks operators (MNOs) such as ORANGE, LIBTELCO, PowerNet, K3 and LONESTAR MTN, access to a more efficient broadband infrastructure. The Project Link initiative in Monrovia is expected to provide a 200 km metropolitan fiber optic network (ring). This means, the Monrovia metro fiber optic ring will extend as far as the outskirts of Paynesville, Fendell (for UL connectivity), and beyond St. Paul bridge toward Virginia.

How does the “Metro Ring” impact the GoL’s Pro-Poor Agenda; how does it benefit us? The entire “Ring” is said to be a $12M investment by the GoL, USAID and Google (now CSquared). It is expected strengthen essential health, education and government systems, as well as help unlock the potential of the digital economy for Liberian citizens and private enterprises. The metro ring not only provides basic access, it enables local providers to offer new mobile data plans or high-speed Internet for office buildings and universities, and support newer technologies as they come to market. It also lays the foundation to support the needs of a new crop of entrepreneurs and innovators, provide fast internet connections for local hospitals and universities and offer new digital learning tools for students.

In addition, the GoL is expected to initially connect 50 priority sites to the CSquared Ring. The “priority” sites are ministries, agencies, and commissions (MACs) identified by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications prior to the deployment of the “ring”. The Monrovia “Metro Ring” will also allow the GoL through LIBTELCO, local ISPs and MNOs, bring capacity from the ACE cable for delivery to the last mile (customers). Moreover, the “Ring” is also expected to create a level playing field providing space for new entrants into the sector. This will kindle competition which will then impact quality of service and costs/prices. This is where citizens benefit from reliable and affordable services or access to the Internet.

Finally, Google itself, is not a broadband infrastructure company. It is in fact a Web giant famous for its search engine and other products. But like many other companies around the world (i.e.: Facebook), Google relies on getting as many people online as possible, and Africa provides a large growth opportunity. One of the good things that Google’s partnership with the other three players brings in addition to building metro networks across African cities, is the focus on rolling out or acquiring and operating backbone infrastructure in West Africa. With Liberia currently in need of a NATIONAL BACKBONE, the advent of CSquared could in fact, remove the burden of the estimated $65 million national backbone from the shoulders of the GoL. The way I see it, this may be happening soon. That’s it for now.

Until next week, Carpe Diem!!!!

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