Eric Osiakwan is a busy man. Near as I can tell, he’s one of the few people I know who has more job titles that I do. And since he’s been to twenty-five African nations in the past five years, he may be one of the unlucky few who spend more time on airplanes than I do. (Joking about this over coffee later, Eric acknowledges that his last girlfriend once told him, “If you like the airplane so much, why don’t you marry it?”)
I last ran into Eric in Grahamstown, South Africa, where he was speaking at the Highway Africa conference. As the executive secretary of AfrISPA (the African ISP operators’ association) and GISPA (the Ghana ISP association), he’s been hard at work on the issues surrounding the proposed EASSy cable, which will complete a fiber-optic link around the African content and, if all goes well, radically reduce the cost of connectivity.
What’s happened with EASSy so far has been pretty fascinating – at its onset, it looked like EASSy would follow the “closed consortium” model that’s helped keep West African bandwidth so expensive. Eric shows a slide that suggests that connectivity in US universities costs roughly $0.12 per kilobit per second of connectivity, while connectivity in West Africa is $8 per kbps – more expensive than satellite connectivity, or connectivity in Central or East Africa. Ironically, the introduction of a cable in west Africa – SAT-3 – hasn’t meaningfully dropped prices in many countries.
Eric describes two approaches to making SAT-3 more affordable. In Ghana and Nigeria, pressure from competitive ISPs strengthened by ISP associations has been able to “push back” on the consortium pricing. As a result, the same E1 circuit that costs $25,000 per month in South Africa costs $1,500 in Ghana. ISPs made satellite connectivity more affordable, forcing the SAT-3 providers to cut their costs much closer to the wholesale cost.
In Mauritius, they’re taking another approach – trying to make the argument at the government level that connectivity is an “essential facility” and using regulation to open access to the cable. Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa are rumored to be exploring this model as well.
The fear has been that the proposed East Africa cable – EASSy – would fall into the same economic traps as SAT-3. But something very interesting has happened around EASSy – a great deal of momentum has developed around the idea that EASSy should be “open access”, that any entity that wants to purchase connectivity from the cable should be able to at a reasonable price without undue restriction. There are forces suggesting that what’s most important is building the cable quickly, and that an open process is bound to be more complex and involved. But Eric and others have argued that the SAT-3 clearly screwed things up and that EASSy has to use a different model, even if it slows down construction.
Eric dreams of a cable where different entities can buy in via different models. In countries where it might be profitable to have access to a fiber cable, like Kenya, the cable should allow for private investment. In countries where private investment in the cable would be at least five years off, Eric sees the possibility of “stretch” funding – public/private partnership to help make private investment in infrastructure more reasonable. In other countries – Burundi, for instance – the cable needs to be treated as a social good, paid for by donors. Eric’s most radical idea is that we could increase African ownership of the cable by floating some ownership shares on regional stock markets, allowing individuals to own a piece of the cable as well.
The conversation broadened quickly into a discussion of communications on the continent, and how communication enables entrepreneurship. Eric suggested that top-down approaches to development miss some of the most exciting innovations on the continent, and that people would be well advised to watch new communication infrastructure in Africa to see what business models develop around it.
Asked about uniquely African innovations in telecoms, I offered four areas where I thought Africans were leading the rest of the world:
– Narrowband – innovative connectivity solutions that use very little bandwidth, like the Ghana “Javelin” project, or Fidonet nodes in Zimbabwe
– Localization – Translation of open source software into a wide variety of languages, especially through the help of organizations like Translate.org.za. Localization of software for challenging environments in projects like Ubuntu.
– Radio – Use of community radio for information dissemination, integration of data and radio in projects like Geekcorps Mali.
– Urban wifi, with huge wifi networks in Accra, Bamako and other African cities.
I wish Eric had an hour to work through his slides – his thinking on the topic is really strong, and I’m hoping he’ll take this dense slide deck and turn it into an article soon for everyone interested in this important project.