Gabonese government launches ICT initiative and goes digital

Already the most developed market in Central Africa, according to the International Telecommunications Union, the expansion of Gabon’s ICT sector is high on the government’s priority list for the coming years, as it continues to push for economic diversification and private sector development.

In 2015 the sector accounted for 5% of the economy, according to the National Agency for Digital Infrastructure and Frequencies (Agence Nationale des Infrastructures Numériques et des Fréquences, ANINF), up from previous years, with estimates of sectoral employment ranging up to 10,000 people. However, the government has laid out ambitious strategies to broaden access and inclusion, which will require significant capital investments, particularly in rural areas, which may become more difficult in light of the government’s slowing revenues.

Overseeing Digital Transition

Developing digital infrastructure is a central component of the government’s national strategy. To achieve its goals, ANINF was established by executive decree in 2011 to oversee Gabon’s digital transition. While the Ministry of the Digital Economy, Communications and Postal Services remains responsible for policymaking, ANINF, which falls under the direct control of the presidency, is charged with managing the planning, installation and application of all digital projects, including telecoms, audio-visual and IT. Once built, the management of all public IT infrastructure is then ceded to the National Digital Infrastructure Company (Société de Patrimoine des Infrastructures Numériques, SPIN). SPIN is responsible for regulating bandwidth tariffs and access conditions, as well as overseeing the operation and maintenance of the networks by private contractors.

ICT & Diversification

Development of the sector falls under the Service Gabon pillar of the Emerging Gabon Strategic Plan, which has guided much of the country’s economic policy priorities in recent years. As part of this drive, the government has rolled out the Digital Gabon strategy, which looks to accelerate ICT activity in the country through increased investment, the construction of a high-speed national network, the cultivation of local content and entrepreneurs, the digitisation of television broadcasts, and e-government services.

Among the specific projects outlined under the Digital Gabon plan is the development of the Central African Backbone (CAB) network, as well as a national fibre-optic network, the launch of an incubator for domestic start-ups, the establishment of Digital Villages in rural areas in collaboration with South Korea’s Samsung to provide education and health e-services, and the migration of television broadcasts to digital.

Usage

As of March 2016 the overall volume of internet subscriptions in Gabon was 1.1m, with a penetration rate of 72.56%, according to data released by the Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services (Autorité de Régulation des Communications Électroniques et des Postes, ARCEP). This represents a relatively slight contraction compared to a year earlier, when 86,531 more subscriptions were recorded and the penetration rate was calculated at 75%. According to ARCEP data, this contraction may be attributed to a reduction in subscriber numbers to local internet service providers (ISPs). Indeed, mobile internet subscriptions overwhelmingly form the vast majority of the country’s internet subscriptions, with an overall 98.8% market share recorded in the first quarter of 2016 – representing an average of 1.07m subscriptions during this period. Mobile internet gained more than two percentage points in market share compared to the first quarter of 2014, suggesting that further market penetration over fixed-line internet and domestic ISPs was well under way across the country.

In the first quarter of 2016 fixed-line internet packages held 1.08% of the market, with the number of subscriptions averaging about 11,607 for the period. While a year-on-year comparison of Gabon Telecom’s fixed-line internet packages shows that its market share remains fairly steady at around 1%, smaller ISPs have lost ground, from a 3% share in the first quarter of 2015 to under 1% in the first quarter of 2016, representing a drop of about 32,160 subscribers. The consolidation of the market has raised some concerns. “The uses and needs are developing faster than the technology, and if there is no re-examination of the regulatory framework, small ISP providers are going to disappear within a decade and larger operators will dominate without really meeting the consumer’s needs and demands,” Edgar Tougouma, technical director at ISP Solsi, told OBG. “The government needs to ensure steps are being taken to protect the consumer,” he added. In the past, high access prices and limited cable bandwidth led ISPs to develop their networks through the use of satellite and WiMAX technology, which allowed them to expand their coverage outside of urban areas and maintain more control over their pricing. Until more fibre-optic infrastructure comes on-line, satellite technology will continue to play a role in connecting rural Gabon to the internet. In December 2014 IG Telecom signed a partnership agreement with US-based satellite broadband capacity provider O3b Networks to use the latter’s O3b Medium Earth Orbit satellites to expand its connectivity.

National Bandwidth Development

Gabon is one of 19 countries in Africa currently connected to the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine fibre-optic cable, which reaches from Brittany, France to Cape Town in South Africa and spans a distance of around 17,000 km. Following its arrival in 2012, the country has quadrupled national bandwidth to about 4.9 Gbps. Previously, Gabon relied on the South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable (SAT-3/WASC), a single fibre-optic submarine cable inaugurated in 2002. The cable has seen several upgrades over the past decade, which has increased its capacity almost 10-fold, from 1.2 Gbps to 15 Gbps.

Since 2012 ANINF has been working to connect the ACE cable to the CAB, a fibre-optic network which is financed in part by the World Bank. The on-land backbone will help extend connectivity to key cities in Gabon, including Franceville and Port-Gentil, as well as Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo and eventually Cameroon. In October 2014 ANINF awarded China Communication Services International the contract to install 1075 km of fibre-optics cabling, along with landing points, as part of the CAB project. The network will run through the centre of the country and connect the existing landing point in Libreville to Franceville in the east, and will include the development of northern landing points in Mitzic and Oyem.

At the end of the project, a total of seven out of nine of Gabon’s provinces will be interconnected. According to ANINF, as of May 2016, 60% of the initial phase of the project had already been completed, representing roughly 960 km.

Commercialisation

The majority of the CAB network, including the ACE gateway, is not yet available for commercial use in Gabon. SPIN has issued a tender to select a private company to manage, maintain and commercialise access to the ACE cable in 2014, and in February 2015 the French infrastructure company Axione, part of the Bouygues Energies and Services group, was awarded the contract to operate and maintain Gabon’s submarine and terrestrial fibre-optic network. While access to the cable has been delayed several times, it is expected to be fully operational by the kick-off of the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament to be hosted by Gabon in 2017. Indeed, the announcement of concrete plans to move forward with the project and Airtel’s connection to the cable in early 2015 are already facilitating faster data transfers and more reliable connections.

At the time of publication, however, access to the ACE network in Libreville was reserved for the sole use of the government. Private operators have been working to try to access it, but as Bercky Lufwa Mayedo Ngoua, commercial director of IG Telecom, told OBG, “To access it, they’ll either need to directly connect to the access point or use radio frequencies to access it.” According to Axione a government consortium was created to utilise the unused fibre-optic in Libreville, but the prices were not competitive. However, in Port-Gentil Axione is working with SPIN to commercialise the 21 km of fibre-optics network in the city, catering primarily to large firms based there.

Digital Villages

Expanding access to IT networks, even in the under-populated rural areas, is no small feat considering how difficult the terrain can be in certain areas where forests are dense, hills are steep and streams split the land. Satellite and WiMAX technologies, therefore, continue to dominate the IT market in Gabon’s rural areas.

To help increase familiarity and access to IT services in health and education in more remote parts of the country, in 2015 the South Korean electronics firm Samsung handed over the pilot phase of its Digital Village project to the Gabonese government. Facilities at the new village, located in Libreville, include an internet school, health centre and a telemedical centre, all powered by solar energy.

Connected Government

In 2008 a large-scale project began rolling out which aimed to provide the different government units in Gabon with high-speed, secure internet connections and link government buildings in Libreville and key offices in provincial capitals to an exclusive secure data centre.

To date, approximately 30 government buildings across the whole of the country have been connected to the Réseau de l’Administration Gabonaise (Gabonese Administration Network, RAG), according to ANINF data. Furthermore, more than three-dozen government websites have also been established and updated and an official email service has been created and rolled out exclusively for civil servants. A number of other digital e-government projects have followed on the heels of RAG. In 2012 Netherlands-based digital security firm Gemalto was selected by the government to set up a biometric civil registry to replace paper identification for official papers, including national identity cards, driving licences and passports to safeguard against identity fraud. This was followed by the Iboga initiative, a biometric population survey carried out in 2013, and a pilot e-tax project launched the same year, which enabled firms to pay their taxes online.

The second phase of the e-tax project was launched in January 2016 to enable citizens to make monthly value-added tax declarations.

The government is also exploring the possibility of connecting every Customs and local tax office to the Treasury to streamline the paperwork trail. Finally, an e-visa system was launched in 2015 through the Directorate of Documentation and Immigration enabling foreign visitors to apply online for a visa to visit Gabon rather than going to a Gabonese consulate.

Education & Training

As part of the Digital Gabon project, the government has been working towards developing an e-education platform since 2010. The first and biggest component of this initiative consists of equipping schools with the necessary infrastructure to connect them with each other. So far this has been achieved in an estimated 20 middle and high schools in Libreville and its suburbs. A second aspect of the programme involves implementing an online portal where school grades and performance reviews are digitised and uploaded to allow parents to easily follow their child’s performance and progress at school. Finally, the third component involves providing support to the Ministry of Education to facilitate online registration for national exams and provide a platform to broadcast the exam results. Additionally, the government has partnered with Microsoft to organise IT training and certification courses, but also to supply equipment in centres and schools. “Thanks to the partnership we have been able to open eight numerical classrooms in Libreville,” Sleidje Blanchard Mavoungou, project chief at ANINF, told OBG. “We expect to be able to launch more outside of Libreville very soon.”

Start-Ups

In 2015 preparations got under way for a new ICT incubator site in Libreville. Launched by the Gabonese government and the World Bank, which is financing the project, the site will focus on encouraging entrepreneurs to develop digital solutions for all sectors of the economy, with a special emphasis placed on eHealth services. Working alongside the Ministry of Health, the site will look at improving various aspects of the national health care system through digitalisation in various areas, including human and financial resources, and equipment and infrastructure, according to the World Bank (see analysis). In addition to Libreville, other smaller sites are planned for Port Gentil and Franceville, with the goal of increasing the number of start-ups, and women-owned companies in particular. These incubators will also serve as training centres to familiarise the Gabonese people with ICT tools.

Regional Hub

To progressively reduce its dependency on Western digital infrastructure, the Gabonese government has submitted a bid to the African Union (AU) to become a regional internet exchange point (IXP) for Central Africa, with the Ministry of Digital Economy, Communication and Postal Services, as well as ANINF, mandated with helping to plan and implement the project. The AU, which aims to localise internet traffic in order to bring down the costs of using overseas infrastructure, and increase the speed and efficiency of internet traffic between countries, will provide capacity building and technical assistance to facilitate the establishment of one IXP located in each of its five geographical regions.

At the time of publication, Gabon, alongside Botswana, Rwanda, Nigeria and Egypt, had been chosen by the AU to host a series of workshops focusing on strategies for capacity building, applying best practices and the benefits of setting up an IXP.

Outlook

The government’s ambitions to transform Gabon into a regional IXP have been warmly received by ISPs in Gabon, who see many opportunities for developing local infrastructure. “I would like to see local IXPs being developed,” Ngoua, told OBG. “As well as host facilities for cloud services and local servers that offer the same amenities as in South Africa or in the West, such as a search engine that values local online content.” Aside from this, the government has also made significant progress on its plans to digitise several sectors of the economy, as demonstrated by initiatives such as the e-education platform and e-health scheme. Moreover, the creation of ICT incubators could represent a significant step forward for the country, as it looks to foster a start-up culture that focuses on helping transition Gabon into becoming a leading digital economy in Central Africa.

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The Report: Gabon 2016

Telecoms & IT chapter from The Report: Gabon 2016