Last week in Sierra Leone the government launched the Sierra Leone Cable (SALCAB) ACE fibre landing and completion in the presence of both public and private sector partners. All of the mobile providers were present including Airtel, the nation’s first mobile voice and data operator. Airtel is one of eight share holders in SALCAB. So we caught up with their Commercial Director, Mr. Keith Tukei to find out what local customers can expect from fibre optic technology.
SWIT SALONE: Can you please explain what the ACE cable is and how it works?
KEITH TUKEI (AIRTEL): ACE is an acronym for Africa Connects Europe and is a consortium that was responsible to deliver fibre cable across the Atlantic ocean from Europe to the shores of Sierra Leone. France Telecom was contracted to do the job and the world bank loaned the GoSL of $25m to undertake the project. Airtel(Bharti) has a 5% stake in ACE. ACE delivered the fibre cable to the shoreline of SL and hands over to SALCAB which was created by GoSL to manage the fibre optic. SALCAB has investors(various ISP’s and GSM operators) who are fully responsible for the management of the landing station. The data center at SALCAB is where all the operators interconnect and deliver capacity(broadband) to their respective NOCs(network operation centers) from where they use it for the various functions such as redistribution/sales etc.
SWIT SALONE: Could you please explain Airtel’s and other mobile company’s investment in SALCAB? How much did each company invest?
KEITH TUKEI (AIRTEL): There are 8 shareholders each having to contribute equally to cover $25m which world bank extended to GoSL to land the ACE cable. This will however be spread over a period of 4years.
SWIT SALONE: When will Airtel start accessing the fibre?
KEITH TUKEI (AIRTEL): March 15th Airtel will be live .
SWIT SALONE: And what does access to fibre mean for the company’s operations?
KEITH TUKEI (AIRTEL): Better service due to increased bandwidth, a variety of new services that are anchored on the platform of faster internet and gradually a reduction in price per MB.
SWIT SALONE: How will it change the way you provide voice and data from before?
KEITH TUKEI (AIRTEL): No changes are envisaged on voice since that is partly dependent on the International Gateway for quality of international calling which is still a monopoly.
However data access will be much easier and convenient with services like WIFI or public hotspots in key locations…airports, universities/colleges/Central business district. Enterprise data solutions like Leased lines anchored on modern technology like MPLS will enable big corporate and NGOs to seamlessly link their remote outposts to their main offices. E-government will be possible as well where government offices will all be linked. We are talking a whole technological revolution in Sierra Leone.
SWIT SALONE: Will data tariffs come down for consumers and by how much?
KEITH TUKEI (AIRTEL): Data tariffs are already coming down driven by increased penetration of internet especially with the youth…its probably early days to talk numbers but we may see a 30% to 50% drop in data access over a 12-18month period driven mainly by reduced bandwidth cost but suffice to say, investment and Opex for running a business is still high in Sierra Leone especially considering that infrastructure development is still at early stages, electricity, road access etc will still be a challenge for service providers to maintain their networks.
SWIT SALONE: When will we start feeling the difference in speed and or price?
KEITH TUKEI (AIRTEL): For speed, you should start feeling difference in the third week of March…..coinciding with the opening season of formula 1. Comparison with formula 1 is deliberate because it will be like migrating from ordinary car to a Ferrari. Regarding price, it will be gradual as the investments in data technology are quite heavy yet the penetration of data in sierra leone up until December 2012 was hovering at around 5% of our subscriber base hence payback takes years but with the imminent internet explosion, smartphone invasion of Sierra Leone, penetration is set to top 30% to 60% in the next 12-24months and the broader the shoulders, the less the impact in real cost terms hence prices should begin to dip around December 2013.
SWIT SALONE: Since all the mobile companies have a stake in SALCAB does this mean that you are no longer going to be regulated by NATCOM?
KEITH TUKEI (AIRTEL): SALCAB is still under the ambit of NATCOM which is mandated to regulate the entire communication industry be it voice or data.
SWIT SALONE: Has the international gateway been liberalized?
KEITH TUKEI (AIRTEL): As part of landing cable and all players being part of SALCAB, it was understood that the international gateway would automatically be run by the respective operators as it was prior to the 2006 Act (as amended). However this is still work in progress and sooner than later, the gate way will be liberalized in line with international best practice which SL aspires to benchmark all their communication practices.