Regulators push for open access to Africa's undersea cables

Regulatory authorities in Southern Africa are pushing to open up access to undersea cables to all countries in the region in order to bring down the high cost of communications in the area.

The Communication Regulatory Authorities of Southern Africa (Crasa) is spearheading the effort, aimed at giving all countries in the Southern African region equal access to the cables. Crasa's legal and policy committee wants the region's landlocked countries to have access to the region's undersea cables at the same price as countries along the shore.

A number of undersea cables, including the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSY) cable, the West African Cable System and Sat-3 are currently servicing the Southern African region. However, landlocked countries are paying more than countries along the shore to connect to the cables.

Crasa said it will soon come up with regulations and policies to control higher charges slapped on landlocked countries.

The EASSY cable for example, was developed on the principle of open access, meant to ensure non-discriminatory access to the cable by any licensed operator in the East and Southern African regions. But since becoming operational about five years ago, the open access principle has not been applied.

Disagreements over the definition of open access principle actually delayed the laying of the cable in 2006 by about five months. Project managers and a consortium of operators formed to promote the project, preferred a "member-only" use of the cable, contrary to the position of the World Bank and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). The World Bank, through NEPAD, funded the project.

Project managers said that participation in the project and access to the cables be limited to service providers with international gateway licenses and countries where the cable has landing stations, including Mozambique, Sudan and South Africa.

NEPAD and non-governmental organizations that took a leading role in securing a $150 million in grants for the project,

however, insisted that the optic fiber capacity be offered to ISPs and nonmember telecom operators for free, and that service providers without gateway licenses be allowed to use the infrastructure.

But since the cable went live in 2010, the issue of open access has lingered, with a number of operators in landlocked countries and those without international gateway licenses still not enjoying the same access to the cables as service providers along the shores.

"The open access is a critical issue that the committee is trying to address by coming up with policies and regulations to ensure that every country regardless of whether they are landlocked or along the shore have equal access to the cable," Crasa Executive Secretary Tony Chigaazira said.

Chigaazira said the open access principle will help reduce the high cost of communications in the region.

Michael Malakata

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