Missed Out Backgrounder on Kenya’s Broadband Journey

The un-sung heroes sit very quietly away from the “fray” admiring and equally enjoying the fruits of the seed they planted

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Ali Hussein Kassim’s post here refers. There is a backgrounder to the Kenya Broadband journey which is mostly missed out.

The story of Kenya going digital/long distance fiber had started much earlier. The originators of this journey remain unheralded, but I say they dared to dream. The already had the fortitude and presence of mind of the reality of that period to venture to the uncharted waters.

The East African Telecommunications Digital Backbone, was actually where the journey all started in 1999. This was a joint project backed by the 3 East African Heads of State under the East African Community. We proposed EAFONE (East Africa Fiber Optic Network) to use already existing infrastructure across the East African power network by lashing fiber on the existing network and extending it across the region. It was supposed to be a quick to market route.

Already existing was the optical ground wire (OPGW) combining fiber which was the communications infrastructure by the utility companies. They had fiber but was lying under/un-utilised. Optical ground wire (OPGW), is the cable you see run between the tops of high-voltage electricity pylons. An optical ground wire (also known as an OPGW or, in the IEEE standard, an optical fiber composite overhead ground wire) is a type of cable that is used in overhead power lines. Such cable combines the functions of grounding of the power transmission network and communications and monitoring and control SCADA network.

The south African angle was that we were going to bring Eskom South Africa on board who already had an extensive fiber network in south(ern) African region coming all the way to Tanzania and for the key reason that we were to connect to the undersea cable through Mtunzini in South Africa and on to the South Asia and the Far East (SAFE) submarine cable.

The EAFONE consortium therefore was to be composed of mostly the utility companies in East Africa; we solicited the support of the East African community and had the pleasure of being chaperoned by the amiable Amb. Francis Muthaura (then the Secretary General at the East African Community) in Arusha who made the necessary linkages with the other East African states.

We got Tanesco on board (which was key because to go to the South African power pool infrastructure, the Tanzania network was key), Uganda utility was wavering due to some local issues and KPLC was on-board (albeit with some underlying story-line – story of another day!); Eskom was the technical/technology partner having done an extensive fiber roll-out on live-line jointly with Siemens as their technical partner.

EAFONE got into headwinds on the issue of funding as none of the utility companies had the resources for this. At the same time, the larger consumers of the service, the telcos, were going through various stages of their own challenges, coupled with calls for the break-up of these entities as a way of restructuring of the sector and general opening up of the telco markets. Another challenge was the commercialization structure of the EAFONE system. Thereafter, Eassy, as a holdover of the East African Digital Backbone, and mostly a collaboration of telco industry players in East Africa carried on where EAFONE had been unable to get things concluded.

It is these challenges which made a move for alternatives.

As regards the industry in general, I would credit the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) and the towering shoulders of our industry titans like Mzee Manu Chandaria (Chair), Mr. Mike Eldon (Member and 1st ICT industry representative at KEPSA) and Mr. Samuel Karanja (first KEPSA CEO), among the many other people who canvassed the President as he was forming the newly elected NARC government cabinet to set up a Ministry of Information and Communication to deal exclusively with issues ICT, Broadcasting and related technology. Certainly, those who came on-board upon this milestone achievement deserve credit for the positive work that they have done.

The amiable Minister Mr. Mutahi Kagwe and Eng. James Rege as the pioneer ICT ministry duo did their part. Then we had Minister Samuel Poghiso and PS Dr. Bitange Ndemo. Dr. Ndemo was certainly a breath of fresh air in the industry and was a mover of many great initiatives that ensued. Teams was a game-changer certainly. A master stroke was getting Safaricom on board as a key/anchor investor and collaborator. For this I credit Mr. Michael Joseph for making the right judgement call at a critical time. I believe that without Safaricom showing this commitment, even the Emir of Dubai would have been challenged to commit! Other Kenya telco operators came on-board but they mostly were driven by the assurance of the Safaricom investment.

Mark you around the same time the TEAMS story was unfolding, SEACOM was already deploying its under-sea fiber network and TEAMS was a quicker and shorter route to get to the undersea connectivity.

The un-sung heroes sit very quietly away from the “fray” admiring and equally enjoying the fruits of the seed they planted.

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