Efforts to accelerate Gabon?s digital development took a key step forward in October when the authorities awarded a long-awaited contract for the installation of the country?s first cross-country fibre-optic connection.
The cable will form the backbone of a future fibre-optic network, while also playing a key role in a wider inter-regional broadband initiative. In addition, the gradual launch of 3G coverage will open up a number of opportunities for expansion in the mobile sector.
Extending the reach
On October 15, the National Agency for Digital Infrastructure and Frequencies (Agence Nationale des Infrastructures Num?riques et des Fr?quences, ANINF) awarded a contract to China Communications Service International to lay cable between Libreville and Franceville in the southeast, before extending it to a landing point on the border with the Republic of the Congo.
The project falls under the World Bank?s Central African Backbone (CAB) initiative, which targets the roll-out of an interconnected broadband network across the region. The World Bank has committed $58m to the construction of the Gabonese line between Libreville and the Congolese border, which will be supplemented by financing from the African Development Bank, local governments and private partners. Bank estimates put the total cost of the project at around $109m.
The CAB project has been in development for four years. In December 2012, Gabon completed its connection to a second submarine fibre-optic cable, which was needed to support a national broadband network and provide bandwidth for the initiative. The Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable tripled national capacity from 1.2Gbps to 4.9Gbps, although construction of the Libreville-Franceville backbone was delayed for more than a year, pending the creation of an independent agency to manage public ICT infrastructure.
Tenders were launched in the first quarter of 2014 for the construction of the Gabonese segment. Meanwhile, ANINF officially transferred ownership of the venture to the independent agency responsible for managing the fibre-optic network and other public ICT infrastructure, the National Digital Infrastructure Company (Soci?t? de Patrimoine des Infrastructures Num?riques) in October.
The 1,075-km fibre-optic connection will cross five provinces – Estuaire, Moyen-Ogoou?, Ogoou?-Lolo, Ogoou?-Ivindo and the Haut-Ogoou? – between Libreville and the Congolese border to the southeast. The Gabonese authorities plan to draw cable extensions from this East-West backbone to the remaining provincial capitals.
Work on the Congo?s segment of the CAB cable network, which will extend from a coastal landing point at Pointe-Noire to the Gabonese border via Dolisie and Mbinda, is well under way. The first phase of the project is expected to be completed by the end of the year, paving the way for infrastructure construction to begin in the first quarter of 2015.
Gabon has an extremely competitive mobile telecoms segment but fixed-line and broadband usage has been constricted in part due to insufficient fibre-optic connectivity. However, the expansion of mobile data is helping to change that.
In the first quarter, the number of registered internet subscribers rose by 16% year-on-year to 657,928, bringing the internet penetration rate to 43% according to the Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services (Autorit? de R?gulation des Communications ?lectroniques et des Postes). The number of mobile internet users jumped 79.7% in 2012 and a further 26.3% in the following year to reach nearly 583,000 by the end of 2013, representing nearly one third of the population.
Those figures are expected to grow further. Broadband capacity provided by the ACE, and made available through the nationwide fibre-optic network, is turning into an important economic multiplier, following the launch of 3G in 2014. Two mobile operators, Airtel and Gabon T?l?com Mobile, launched a 3G service in 2014, while Gabon T?l?com, which is majority-owned by Morocco?s Maroc Telecom, announced plans in October to jump directly to 4G. As competition drives prices down, the country is likely to see a sharp uptick in demand for broadband capacity.