Linked in: New connectivity plans under way, including a second undersea cable

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The government of Gabon has made of the use of IT a priority within its development strategy. Indeed, the Digital Gabon plan aims at creating a digital economy, in order to diversify Gabon’s economic activities away from the traditional exploitation of natural resources.

The plan is now taking shape following significant investments in IT infrastructure and decisive measures taken by a newly created implementing agency. With the installation of a second international fibre-optic cable, Gabon is moving towards becoming a regional centre, capable of servicing its own market and neighbouring countries searching for new connections.

PARTNERSHIPS: The implementation of the “Cloud Gabon” project and the creation of IT flagship zones will require substantial financial resources. For instance, it is estimated the creation of an IT zone at Nkok will cost $70m. Hence, the government’s strategy is to favour public-private partnerships. More precisely, the Ministry of Digital Economy, Communication and Postal Services is planning to create a private firm, Gabon Multimedia Development Company (GMDC), in which the state would hold 20% of shares, with the rest held by private investors. The GMDC, acting as a development fund, would be responsible for facilitating and supervising the implementation of the zones.

In June 2012, the government created the Société de Patrimoine des Infrastructures Numériques (SPIN), whose mandate is to own and manage the shares of the state within IT and digital economy projects.

NEW IMPLEMENTING AGENCY: Created in January 2011, the National Agency of Digital Infrastructure and Frequencies (Agence Nationale des Infrastructures Numériques et des Fréquences, ANINF) is supervising the modernisation of all IT, audiovisual and telecommunications infrastructure. ANINF’s mandate is in line with the digital economy strategy announced by the government in 2010 and reiterated by the president in October 2011 at the opening ceremony of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Telecom World Conference in Geneva. The strategy’s main objective is to increase access to broadband internet throughout the country and in the broader region.

ANINF is currently overseeing the installation of the new fibre-optic cable and the construction of a backbone network in the provinces. It is also responsible for setting up new e-government services. ANINF has been placed under the direct authority of the presidency, an indication of the importance given to IT.

INFRASTRUCTURE: The completion of the installation of the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) fibre-optic cable has been announced for November 2012. With an ending point in Libreville, the ACE cable will be Gabon’s second fibre-optic cable, as it has been connected to the SAT3/WASC fibre-optic submarine cable since 2002.

Gabon Telecom, which was granted the licence to operate the SAT3/WASC cable, has kept tariffs at a high level until recently, prompting most internet service providers (ISPs) to rely more on satellite services. The current access cost of connection with the SAT3/WASC is CFA1.2m (€1800). “The way the SAT3 cable was managed by Gabon Telecom did not ensure a proper distribution of broadband internet. ANINF will complete installation of the ACE cable before the end of 2012 and guarantee an equitable access to broadband internet for all operators” said Marcien Mackaya, ANINF’s director of engineering and applications.

In parallel with installing the ACE cable, the government – which has a 49% share in Gabon Telecom – has indicated it will increase the capacity and use of the SAT3/WASC cable. In May 2012 Gabon Telecom announced its ADSL services, which cover 10 cities, were being extended to two additional ones. It also announced an increase of the bandwidth granted to Libreville and Port-Gentil and the launching of four additional fibre-optic connection sites in Libreville with 155 mbps each, while promising to reduce the cost of end-user access to broadband internet.

The planned national backbone infrastructure includes maritime and terrestrial components. First, by the end of 2012 Port-Gentil will be connected to the ACE cable through a maritime cable, with extensions toward Gamba, Mayumba and Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo. In parallel, a terrestrial fibre-optic network linking all nine provincial capitals and other key urban areas is being developed and will ensure connection with Cameroon, the Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea. The construction of the terrestrial network is set to begin in October 2012 and should be completed by 2016. The whole backbone infrastructure will provide a broadband connection of 50 Mbps at the very minimum for all segments. The cost of the first phase of the project is estimated at $58m.

Apart from improving prices and connection quality, the ACE cable is also expected to have an effect on the local IT industry, by attracting new ISPs. Gabon’s consumers are very prompt in adopting new IT technologies when affordable, as indicated by the 97% penetration rate of mobile telephony. It is thus reasonable to believe that the penetration of internet should rise quickly, particularly if combined with mobile telephone technology. From this perspective, the ACE cable should have a positive impact for mobile phone operators as well, through 3G and mobile internet services.

MEETING STANDARDS: The installation of the ACE cable also falls in line with the €157m Central African Backbone (CAB) project, funded by the World Bank and the African Development Bank. The project aims to increase access and lower costs for the development of IT infrastructure. As part of the CAB project, the World Bank has confirmed a loan facility of $58m for the installation of land-based links with the ACE cable in Franceville, Lekoni, Koulamoutou and at the Congolese border. France’s oil company Total is also contributing to the installation of the ACE cable in Gabon. As mentioned above, ACE will connect several countries to the fibre-optic cable, including Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea. The CAB project also aims at assisting these countries in reviewing their legal and regulatory framework for information and communications technology (ICT) and in designing e-government services. The CAB project is being implemented with the cooperation of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa and the African Union.

INTERNET PENETRATION: Considering that Gabon has one of the highest GDP per capita rates in Africa and has been connected to an international fibre-optic cable since 2002, the penetration rate for internet is surprisingly low. In 2011, only 18% of the population had access to internet services, according to the Ministry of Digital Economy, Communication and Postal Services. The total number of internet subscribers in the country was 282,776 by the end of 2011, up by 21.6% compared to 2010. There were less customers using a high-speed connection in 2011 than in 2010. More precisely, 6651 subscribers used high-speed internet, compared to 8450 in 2010. High-speed internet users account for only 2.35% of the market.

ISP MAIN PLAYERS: Seven ISPs are currently competing for this narrow market, mostly limited to large urban areas. Based on the Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services (Agence de Ré gulation des Communications électroniques et des Postes, ARCEP) statistics, the dominant player is Celtel Gabon (branded as Airtel). With 226,683 subscribers by the end of 2011, it has an 80.16% market share, down from 82.14% the previous year.

Far behind Airtel comes Atlantic Telecom Gabon (branded as Moov), which had 30,046 subscribers by the end of 2011 and now has a 10.62% market share, up from a 7.44% market share in 2010.

As for the former state company Gabon Telecom (51% owned by Maroc Telecom and branded as Libertis), it has an 8.36% market share with 23,657 subscribers, down from a 9.44% position in the previous year. Despite its licensed monopoly on the use of the SAT3/WASC fibre-optic cable, Gabon Telecom has been unable to acquire the leading position and is losing market shares to younger competitors such as Moov.

The remaining three ISPs mentioned in ARCEP’s statistics (Internet Gabon, Solsi and GBM) accounted for less than 1% of the market altogether by the end of 2011. The general turnover of ISPs in 2011 was CFA22bn (€33m), up by 25% compared to 2010.

As for IPI9, the seventh ISP, its performance does not appear in ARCEP’s figures. Launched in April 2011, it claims it reached 10,000 customers by the end of 2011, as a result of its affordable modems and access rates.

SATELLITE INTERNET SERVICES: In order to avoid Gabon Telecom’s high tariffs to access fibre-optic cable, several ISPs instead rely on satellite technology (VSAT and/or WiMAX). “Until recently, the cost of access to the fibre-optic cable was six to eight times higher than what it is in other countries of the region” Raz Biramah, the technical director of IPI9, told OBG. IPI9 claims to be one the biggest buyers of satellite bandwidth in Gabon. According to Biramah, satellite prices still remain competitive with the inflated prices of SAT3/WASC fibre-optic cable, even after it has been reduced as a result of demands made by ARCEP.

Despite the arrival of the ACE cable, relying on satellite technology might still be preferable for some ISPs. “By spring 2013, new satellites that fly closer to the Earth will be available for use. This will have a positive impact on the provinces as it will help bring affordable internet far from the reaches of fibre-optic cables” said Jean-Baptiste Tomi, the CEO of IPI9.

GOVERNMENT INCENTIVES: Although the creation of the Mandji Island Cybercity, a digital technology park in Port-Gentil, had been announced in 2010, it has not yet materialised. Considering the difficulty for start-ups to access credit in Gabon, the government will need to provide attractive fiscal incentives to pull in new local investors in the IT sector and ensure they can benefit from the infrastructure being installed.

Arthur Bongo Ondimba, the CEO of Solsi, told OBG, “We are still waiting to see what exactly the conditions will be to access the ACE fibre-optic cable. We are exploring the possibility of forming a consortium. The reality is that with investment amortisation, prices will likely be high, unless the government helps make it more affordable for operators.”

IT FLAGSHIP ZONES: In order to facilitate the development of a digital economy and of mobile services, the government is planning to create seven IT flagship zones to act as business incubators. The flagship zones will be established in several provinces and will be connected to universities and/or IT institutes, with the aim of attracting youth to IT activities. The seven flagship zones will be the Cybercity of Mandji Island, to be located within the Port-Gentil Special Economic Zone; the IT park of Nkok, to be located within the special economic zone of Nkok; the Franceville IT Park; the Boue IT Park; the Oyem IT Park; the Lambarene IT Park; and the Mouila IT Park. “Our objective is to create a fabric of ‘technopreneurs’,” Lichambany said. “We will also encourage them to respond to governmental tender calls for content and services creation.”

E-GOVERNMENT: ANINF is charged with the development of a new e-government services as part of the Gabon Online (GOL) project by 2013. As part of the GOL project, ANINF is supervising the creation of websites for all major institutions, ministries, embassies and key local councils of Gabon, with the aim of increasing access to public information for all citizens. The GOL project also entails an intranet component, allowing each civil servant to benefit from a professional email address and from access to a collaborative platform. In terms of public services, ANINF is developing a new e-tax system which will allow tax declarations to be submitted online. In July 2012 ANINF told OBG that the project was 90% completed.

CONNECTED GOVERNMENT: ANINF has started developing the infrastructure of a dedicated network for the whole administration, called the Réseau de l’ Administration Gabonaise (RAG). It will include ministries, agencies and local councils. Using a combination of satellite connection, fibre-optic and radio technology, ANINF will connect all public buildings in the nine provincial capitals. According to ANINF the development of the RAG project was 54% completed by June 2012.

ANINF is also actively working on developing a specific WiMAX network that will be dedicated to the government and its agencies. The network will ensure free internal telephone communications for the government while allowing helping create broadband wireless access to the internet. Hospitals and schools should particularly benefit from this wireless access. ANINF has already installed 16 base terminal stations (BTS), including 13 in Libreville which were used during the Africa Cup of Nations to cover hotels and stadiums. An additional 65 BTS should be installed in the rest of the territory before the end of 2013.

The transition to a WiMAX system for the government’s internal communications is expected to affect Gabon Telecom’s turnover significantly. Until now, Gabon Telecom was providing fixed-line telephone and internet services for the government.

In fact, Gabon Telecom told OBG the state of Gabon accounts for around 60% of its turnover. ANINF has also been granted the authority to manage Gabon’s country code top-level domain (.ga), which Gabon Telecom previously handled.

DIGITAL TERRESTRIAL TELEVISION: In June 2012, ARCEP hosted the 13th Forum on Telecom/ICT Regulation and Partnership in Africa, organised in partnership with the ITU and the African Telecommunication Union (ATU). Discussion during the forum focused on the transition from analogue to digital television. Like other ITU members, Gabon is planning is to abandon UHF analogue television by 2015 and VHF analogue television by 2020. In 2012 Gabon has adopted plans to begin installing the required terrestrial infrastructure.

As digital television uses less spectrum than analogue television, the changeover will result in a digital dividend. The freed-up spectrum will offer new opportunities for ICT investors and the government is considering using part of this spectrum for broadband mobile commerce services (see analysis).

DIGITAL SATELLITE TELEVISION: France’s Canal+ currently dominates the market of digital television in Gabon. With 46% growth in 2011, Canal+ is expecting to reach 120,000 subscriptions by the end of 2012. Its services are available in 26 cities. The growth of Canal+ is related to a substantial decrease in the costs of the hardware, which have dropped by a factor of ten since 2008. As an indication of the potential of the digital television market in Gabon, 50% of Canal+ customers subscribed to the most expensive package, sold at CFA40,000 (€60) per month. The total potential customer base of the market is around 300,000 homes.

In July 2012, Internet Gabon launched a $12m project called “Triple Net”. Through this project, Internet Gabon will begin to offer affordable internet, radio and TV services in rural areas, thanks to its partnership with the satellite operator SES.

OUTLOOK: The IT sector is still limited to a narrow market in Gabon. The arrival of the ACE cable by the end of 2012 will have a catalysing effect by decreasing the cost of access to broadband internet and thus increasing the penetration rate. The government’s commitment to the development of a strong and competitive IT sector will likely help to attract new ISPs as well expanding the reach of existing ones.

“30,000 computers come into Gabon every year, and today people use computers so they can have access to the internet, which is why there is huge growth potential in the ISP market,” Tomi told OBG.

A reinforced IT infrastructure will also result in an increased quality of services for consumers, both in terms of internet connectivity and mobile phones. By connecting the whole region to the ACE cable, Gabon also is also now becoming a centre of the region’s ICT.

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The Report: Gabon 2012

Telecoms & IT chapter from The Report: Gabon 2012

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