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DRC: At the heart of the fibre-optic battle

By Quentin Velluet
Posted on Saturday, 14 August 2021 22:49

A general view shows an empty street during a lockdown due to the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), next to a residential building in Gombe district of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo April 19, 2020. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe - RC2A8G926ZYP

“We are the place to be,” as the English would say. After two years of political uncertainty linked to a laborious collaboration between Joseph Kabila and Félix Tshisekedi, and then to the current president's quest to establish his Union Sacrée, Augustin Kibassa Maliba makes no effort to hide his relief or determination.

The DRC’s 49-year-old minister of posts, telecommunications and new information and communication technologies can finally embark on one of the missions that he was entrusted with on 26 August 2019.

It involves attracting investors who will be able to quickly wire up his country, which has been decried for its uncertain business environment, difficult topography and weak mobile internet connection.

Network deficiencies

In fact, the DRC is one of the continent’s least equipped countries when it comes to network infrastructure. The low density of its network means that even the slightest breakdown can have significant consequences. The most recent one occurred in mid-July, after a terrestrial fibre optic line that connects Muanda – on the Atlantic coast – to the capital, Kinshasa (about 360 km as the crow flies), was cut. The incident caused a sharp slowdown in traffic for millions of Orange and Vodacom subscribers during the afternoon of 16 July.

With an old digital regulatory framework – the most recent text dates back to 1987 – the continent’s second-largest country, which by virtue of its location could become an interconnection hub for Africa, paradoxically has a low mobile internet penetration rate of 25% (+5 points in four years). The latest edition of the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) information and communication technology development index, which was published in 2017, ranked the DRC at 171 out of 175 states in terms of equipment.

As a result of these shortcomings, the cost of mobile data is soaring. Whether they live in Kinshasa, Goma, Lubumbashi or in areas with much less coverage, Congolese users have to pay an average of $8 per gigabyte of data. The DRC falls short once more, as it is one of the countries on the continent with the highest data costs.

50,000km of fibre to be laid

“We have to admit that we are behind, it’s not something to be ashamed of,” says Maliba. The native of Katanga province – who is aware of the objectives that were defined in the National Digital Plan, which was published in September 2019 – believes that his country needs at least 50,000km of fibre optics to catch up technologically.

Therefore, he doesn’t think twice about dressing up as a telecoms salesman to attract investors. In mid-June, he visited the Congolese delegation’s stand at the Vivatech trade fair in Paris. A few weeks later, he discovered the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, a global telecoms rave where he was able to look in on the Huawei and Orange stands as well as discuss the need to harmonise various legal frameworks with his counterparts from the continent.

In Kinshasa, the work is starting to pay off. In recent weeks, announcements have been pouring in about the numerous fibre-optic projects that have been launched. On 28 June, the Egyptian equipment manufacturer Benya Capital got the ball rolling by signing a contract with the Société Congolaise des Postes et Télécommunications (SCPT) – the country’s historical operator and manager of telecoms infrastructure – to install and operate 16,000km of optical fibre.

Facebook, Liquid Intelligent Technologies and Africell on the front line

A few days later, Facebook and Liquid Intelligent Technologies (formerly Liquid Telecom) – which already has 2,500km of fibre in the country – announced a partnership to build and operate a cable that will run 2,000km as the crow flies, from the centre of the country to the 2Africa cable’s landing point in Muanda. The group controlled by Zimbabwean billionaire Strive Masiyiwa had announced another project in collaboration with Orange a few months earlier, which involves implementing a 4,000-km cable between the town of Kasumbalesa, in Katanga, and Inga in Bas-Congo. The cost of the operation is estimated at $20m.

At the end of July, the British company LMS Holdings signed a build, operate and transfer contract with SCPT. It provides for the construction and management of a 640-km cable linking Kasindi to Bukavu; a transfer of skills; renovation of equipment at the West Africa Cable System (Wacs) landing station in Muanda and improvement in computerisation of the public company. The contract is estimated to cost $35m. “The idea is to encourage private investment, but also public-private partnerships,” says Maliba.

All of these projects are boosting foreign investor confidence. The IFC and two private equity firms – Adenia Partners and African Infrastructure Investment Managers (AIIM) – have injected $130m into Eastcastle Infrastructure, a telecom tower operator that plans to set up new towers in the DRC.

For its part, Africell, the country’s fourth-largest operator, intends to invest part of the $205m that it received from the US and several banks into extending its network and developing new services in the country.

Governance to be clarified

“Our objective is to cover 50% to 70% of the territory within three years,” says the minister. Whether this ambitious undertaking is fulfilled or not will depend – to a large extent – on how the public authorities supervise and support these projects. Even if the private sector is structured with support from the institutions concerned, the administration will still need to coordinate to define clear governance.

For the moment, it is difficult to distinguish the respective prerogatives of Maliba and Désiré Cashmir Eberande Kolonge, the new digital minister. “Rather cross-sectional projects have already been assigned to my colleague,” says the minister of telecommunications, “but we are still waiting for each ministry to receive its assignments,” he told us.

The third person expected to intervene in ICT is Dominique Migisha, the head of state’s special adviser in charge of digital. Created in March 2019, this position seems to be dedicated to promoting a less operational version of the National Digital Plan.

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