Sunday, January 11, 2004

XDev - Fiber in Nigeria

Via a post made by Andrew McLaughlin some six months ago, I came across a little-known fact: that there is an undersea fiber-optic cable running from Spain to South Africa, with landing points in Dakar (Senegal), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Accra (Ghana), Cotonou (Benin), Lagos (Nigeria), Douala (Cameroon), Libreville (Gabon) and Cacuaco (Angola).

The SAT-3/WASC fiber segment consists of 4 strands, which may not seem like a lot, but when Wave-Division Multiplexing (WDM) is taken into account, the carrying capacity of a single strand will be seen to be phenomenal. The SAT-3/WASC/SAFE page indicates an ultimate bandwidth of 120 Gbps; assuming that one fiber remains unlit for whatever reason, each of the remaining fibers would only have to be transmitting on 16 wavelengths at OC-48 (2.5 Gbps) for the 120 Gbps total to be attained. This is very far from the state of the art, as OC-192 (10 Gbps) transmission speeds are now commonplace, as are WDM systems that accomodate up to 160 wavelengths; OC-768 (40 Gbps) components are already on the market, while both NEC and Lucent have demonstrated Ultra-Dense WDM systems of 273 and 1,022 wavelengths respectively. All things considered, 4 fiber strands is plenty, and the only real bandwidth limitations are imposed by cost considerations for the multiplexing/demultiplexing technology at the ends of the fiber strands.

Now, it may seem strange to some that I should go on at such length about what might seem a routine matter of undersea fiber cabling, but the implications of this fiber are truly tremendous when properly considered. Take, for instance this 2002 article by Esther Dyson for the New York Times, in which she indicated that the entire country had access to a mere 20 MB/s (160 Mbps) of bandwidth, much of which was almost certainly provided by high-latency satellite links; a single OC-48 wavelength on just one of the SAT-3/WASC fibers would be enough to multiply that number by more than 15-fold! This would enable a host of other possibilities; apart from dramatically slashing the cost - and likely raising the call quality - of international telephony for Ghanaians, cheaper and more plentiful bandwidth would also enable Ghana, which has a substantial class of educated English-speakers, to take advantage of the same outsourcing trend that has been such a boon to India. Unfortunately, the vested interests of the political elite, which sees international telephony mostly as an easy source of revenue via tariffs, as well as those of Ghana Telecom, the incumbent monopoly, constitute formidable obstacles to realizing these possibilities, a point made clear by this NYT article, some of which is excerpted below:

Calls in and out of sub-Saharan Africa have long been among the world's most costly, strangling business opportunities and burdening ordinary people. Services have been tightly controlled by government-owned telephone companies, many of which are rife with corruption and incompetence. Governments also imposed high tariffs on international calls, seeing it as a lucrative source of revenue.

But now, thanks to what is called voice-over-Internet, phone alternatives are flourishing, sharply lowering costs and expanding opportunities for business and consumers in some of the poorest places on earth -- even as they pose a competitive threat to government-sanctioned telephone companies.

Sending telephone calls over the Internet is gaining ground in Africa because it makes possible a range of new services, linking the sub-Saharan to the world's major industrial centers in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. And better digital connections, mostly via satellite, are raising the hope that Ghana -- the most peaceful country in a West African region besieged by civil wars and ethnic strife -- may become the regional hub for an information-technology industry.

"As Ghana improves its connectivity to the outside world, it has the potential to become for Africa what Bangalore became for India," said Paul Maritz, a former senior executive at Microsoft who recently visited Accra to survey the nascent high-tech scene here.

[............]

As the movement advances, though, many government-owned telephone companies, which dominate wired service in most African countries, are fighting a rear-guard action.

Internet telephony "is presented as the salvation for business and society in Africa," said Oystein Bjorge, chief executive of Ghana's national telephone carrier. "It is not."

Mr. Bjorge, a Norwegian telecommunications consultant hired recently to do battle against the Internet telephone services, said it wreaks havoc with the economics of phone companies. Here in Ghana, the national phone company is waging a sporadic campaign against its own citizens who use the Internet to make or receive telephone calls from America and Europe, periodically turning off the lines of those suspected of doing so.

Three years ago, the government even jailed the heads of some of Ghana's leading Internet providers. Though later exonerated by a court, the dissidents fear another crackdown. "Internet telephony is changing the whole power structure," said Francis Quartey, chief technology officer of Intercom Data Network and one of those jailed. "The dangerous thing is that the power elite is responding out of fear and ignorance."

Despite this opposition, American companies are experimenting with new ventures in Ghana, seeing if enthusiasm for Internet telephony can transform local technology entrepreneurs into a force for genuine economic advancement.

For example, Rising Data Solutions, which is based in Gaithersburg, Md., introduced a call center here last month, where a dozen Ghanaians -- trained in American-style English -- are trying to sign up customers in the northeastern United States on behalf of a wireless phone company. At least three other call centers are expected to open in Accra later this year, all relying on Internet telephony instead of telephone carriers.

[............]

... official anxiety over Internet telephony is widespread throughout Africa and particularly rife in Ghana. At a public meeting in May, held at the largest Internet cafe in Accra, a regulator defended the government's latest campaign against those who use the Internet to bypass authorized telephone providers. "The players have been apprehended or will be apprehended soon," said Bernard Forson, deputy director of the National Communications Authority of Ghana.

The government is not opposed to any particular technology, Mr. Forson explained, but merely wants "regulated entities to provide telephone service," not unlicensed and untaxed wildcatters. [a sentiment not dissimilar to that expressed by those in the US who wish to regulate VoIP]

Other African countries face a similar quandary, aware of the appeal of Internet voice service but fearful of its damage to the state-owned telephone company.

Neighboring Togo, for instance, allowed Internet telephony until the end of last year, when the government cracked down on behalf of Togo Telecom. So many foreign calls in tiny Togo were being routed over the Internet that a small "com" center -- ubiquitous in Africa, offering calls for a fee -- took in $10,000 a month from just two phones.


But some African countries have embraced Internet telephony as a way to end decades of frustration. In Nigeria, for example, the government has not officially approved telephoning over the Internet but looks the other way, partly to ease congestion on its authorized networks.

Still, the legal confusion surrounding Internet telephony has prompted some to avoid it. Affiliated Computer Services, which is based in Dallas, set up shop in Accra two years ago, relying on a private satellite connection to the Internet that supports both a data and a telephone network. Today, it is one of Ghana's largest private employers, with 1,200 people and plans to hire another 700.

While the company runs call centers in Jamaica, Mexico and India, it does not intend to do such telephone work in Ghana. "We can't use satellite lines" because of the brief delay in hearing a response [the latency issue], said Tom Blodgett, the executive who started the Ghana operation. And for now, he adds, "there is no suitable wired alternative." A legal one, anyway.

In the case of Nigeria, I know a fair bit about the political machinations going on behind the scenes; let it suffice for now for me to say that, in addition to the usual self-seeking of a monopoly carrier (NITEL) and the "poisonous legacy of LSE-taught Marxism" mentioned by Frank McGahon (the baleful influence of which, President Obasanjo, who ruinously nationalized a broad swathe of industries in the name of "anti-colonialism" back in the 1970s, is still struggling to free his thinking from*), ethnic rivalry also plays a major role, the question as always being "qui bono?" ("who benefits?"), one perception, as always, in the minds of Northern politicians being that NITEL privatization and telecoms deregulation is a plot by Yoruba politicians to tear down a regime which has provided so many comfortable sinecures for favored sons of the North. Again, as always, there is the worry that such initiatives will only enable the Southern states to pull even further ahead of the North in terms of economic prosperity, detrimentally tilting the balance of power; "better that everyone remains where they are than that those Southern infidels lord it over us with their new wealth" is a very widespread, and frequently openly admitted, strain of thought amongst Northern opinion-makers.

*Note that I'm not implying that he is an LSE graduate. What I am saying is that the LSE has produced plenty of graduates whose subsequent careers as advocates of theories of "exploitation" and "neo-colonialism" popularized the indigenization policies that proved so disastrous for the developing world in the 1970s.