DRC four months behind schedule for WACS connectivity; details of future fibre links revealed

29 May 2012

According to a report by US-based international news agency Voice of America (VoA), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is around four months behind schedule in terms of connecting to the West African Cable System (WACS), which officially launched on 11 May 2012. The Africa-Europe undersea system will be the first direct connection to international submarine cable networks for Namibia, Togo, the Republic of Congo and the DRC. Local media have blamed the lack of connectivity on a number of factors, including government red-tape, financial mismanagement and a lack of technical know-how. It is believed that the cable landing station in Muanda was not built to the correct technical standards, with the company contracted to undertake the work professing to have no previous experience in the field. The problems have been exacerbated by financial irregularities at national fixed line provider Societe Congolaise des Postes et Telecommunications (SCPT), which saw USD3 million worth of government funds ‘vanish’, with the director general charged with high treason and jailed for his part in the scandal. It is believed that the irregularities only came to light after SCPT employees protested plans to create a private company, Congo Cable, to manage the country’s fibre-optic connectivity – a plan which was subsequently abandoned due to concerns over national security.

Laurent Ntumba, founder of prominent Congolese internet service provider (ISP) Microcom, commented: ‘There are many [fibre-optic] cables in Africa. There are maybe seven or eight, and we are not connected. It is unacceptable’. He also explained that a fibre-optic link between Muanda on the Atlantic coast and capital city Kinshasa could have been switched on years ago if it was not for mismanagement. With reference to the formation of Congo Cable, he added: ‘Managing the cable is not easy. You need to have the knowledge, you need all the support, and I don’t know if the SCPT has this level of competence’. Ntumba also expressed doubts about the government’s plan to roll out a 2,000km fibre network linking Kinshasa to Lubumbashi in the southeast corner of the country. He contends that it would arguably be quicker and cheaper to connect Lubumbashi to existing fibre-optic infrastructure in neighbouring Zambia, before linking the DRC’s eastern cities to cables in nearby Rwanda and Uganda, thus saving money for future deployments elsewhere in the country.

Nevertheless, Placide Mbatika, the current director general of the SCPT, confirmed that a funding deal has already been signed with China’s Ex-Im Bank, whilst an unnamed Chinese contractor has been enlisted to lay the 2,000km cable. Somewhat optimistically, given the calamitous state of affairs to date, Mbatika predicts that the landing of the WACS cable, and its subsequent connection to Kinshasa, will both be achieved by the end of August.