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EASSy sees double PDF Print E-mail

18th January 2007

 The protracted wrangle between the NEPAD's e-Africa Commission and a consortium of companies that initially conceived the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) project now looks set to result in the construction of two competing submarine cables, Daily Monitor has learnt.

What is still unclear is to what extent this new development will affect the pace of development of the cable project and how it will impact its ability to meet its overriding objectives, mainly bringing down the costs of communication and spurring the Information, Communication and Information (ICT) industry in the region. 

EASSy is an ambitious initiative to connect countries of eastern Africa via a high bandwidth fibre optic cable system to the rest of the world. It was first mooted by a group of about 15 telecom companies meeting in Nairobi, Kenya in 2003. They included Uganda's MTN and UTL, Telecom S. Africa, Kenya Telecom and others.

They planned to lay a fibre optic cable along the East African coast that would offer a direct connection to the world's information superhighway. It was to enable the region have access to a broadband network which would permit ultra-fast transmission of digital traffic and at cheaper prices.

Donald Nyakairu, UTL's Legal Counsel and Chairman of EASSy Finance committee asserted in a recent interview that the e-Africa Commission's hijacking of the cable was unfair and opportunistic and that its actions were being totally disregarded. The consortium has repeatedly rebuffed entreaties from the commission to stop their plans and join in the NEPAD project.

"While the e-Commission is busy making everybody believe that they're in charge of the project, for us we are advancing pretty fast and real construction is starting soon," Mr Nyakairu said.

He said the original companies that conceived the idea later signed an understanding and constituted themselves into a consortium that was supposed to develop, own and operate the cable.

The e-Commission was invited in the subsequent meetings, as an observer but to the astonishment of the consortium, it soon started to show deep interest in the project's details and even demanded active involvement. "We thought they were attending to see the progress, but all of a sudden they started to make demands which shocked us," Nyakairu said.

Right now, the e-Commission is pursuing its own project in concert with the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the governments of South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, DR Congo, Rwanda and others which are also signatories to the EASSy protocol.

The conflict between the two sides principally stems from the mode of the project implementation. NEPAD e-Africa Commission insists that a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) develops, owns, and operates the cable while the consortium wants companies to take charge exclusively.

Nyakairu said if the commission wants to construct a parallel cable, then it must find its own name and stop encroaching on the intellectual property of the consortium (EASSy). However, the Commission's regulatory advisor, Dr Edmund Katiti dismissed claims that it was hijacking the EASSy name. "The regional network is currently referred to as the NEPAD ICT Broadband Infrastructure Network" he said, adding that it consists of two interconnected segments - a submarine cable and a terrestrial network (intra-country cable). He said the shareholders in the SPVs are the ones who will decide what name(s) to give to the network and its segments.

As a way of attempting to defuse the differences and accommodate the concerns of the Commission, Nyakairu said the Consortium members had decided to also have an SPV that would act as a collective investment vehicle for all smaller telecom concerns in the region. This SPV will then buy shares in the cable as a single investor. "We really think we have done everything to address all these accusations," he said.

Even then, the two sides seem to be far from striking any agreement. Dr Katiti said the Nepad ICT Broadband Infrastructure Network Protocol is scheduled to go into effect in the first quarter of 2007, which would also mark the commencement of construction. On the other hand, the consortium has already awarded the construction contract to Alcatel and work is beginning early this year.

Source: The Monitor
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