FREETOWN, October 4, 2011–On a sunny Saturday afternoon, while young boys are playing soccer and young girls are swimming at Lumley beach in Freetown, there is frantic construction underway nearby which could help fire the imagination of these youth. In a few weeks, a ship is expected to land in Sierra Leone to lay a submarine cable connecting the country to what is often called “the Africa Coast to Europe” or the ACE cable system.
On it hangs the hopes of a country and its young population. Sierra Leone, which currently relies on expensive satellite systems for telecommunications and internet, is among the last remaining countries in Africa to be connected to the submarine cable network. The prolonged civil war interfered with previous opportunities to be connected to the submarine cable, but that has all changed thanks to the World Bank-funded West Africa Regional Communications Infrastructure Program (WARCIP).
The project began after a meeting between President Ernest Bai Koroma and World Bank President Robert Zoellick in 2009, and subsequently with World Bank Africa Vice President Obiageli Ezekwesili in 2010. In response to the Sierra Leone government’s request, the Bank offered to support and improve connectivity in the country.
Intensive discussions between the government of Sierra Leone and the World Bank followed, leading to the approval of $31m for the Sierra Leone component of WARCIP.
Mavis Ampah, the Bank Task Team Leader for the project recalls the effort put into the project. “We exerted the feverish efforts to meet the tight ACE consortium payment deadlines and the inordinate efforts of World Bank senior management to provide exceptional waivers to make the transaction happen.”
A recent article in The Economist talked of a new type of poverty in Africa by identifying the challenges that come from not being part of an interconnected global communication network. The article highlights the lack of submarine cable connectivity in Sierra Leone and a few other countries on the continent.
Kumba Gborie, a final year university student who frequently uses the Lee-Point internet kiosk on the way to Lumley, expressed her frustration over slow internet speeds associated with satellite systems telecommunications.
“If you are lucky, you may eventually open your email inbox after waiting for over 15 minutes. The speeds are incredibly low,” she said. “We spend several hours trying to download a simple document and the price for the usage is often Le10000 per hour - the exact amount for our daily lunch during a school day. We often sacrifice our lunch in order to be able to download a document needed for reference in our academic work without which we are most likely to fail the semester.”
This project is meant to help address this ‘new poverty.’ It is expected to do three things for Sierra Leone: (i) increase the access and affordability of broadband communication; (ii) improve the enabling environment for communications infrastructure investment; and (iii) contribute to improved government efficiency and transparency through better and cheaper access to connectivity and increased use of ICT.
So what would the success in the project looks like? It should dramatically bring down communication costs, as connectivity costs in Sierra Leone are currently 10 times that in East Africa. Lower connectivity costs should lead to greater access to broadband and better quality services. Research shows that every 10 percentage-point increase in high-speed internet connections has led to increase in economic growth by 1.3 percentage points, so intensification of broadband network will also stimulate investment and growth, as businesses would be able to reduce transaction costs and increase productivity.
In other countries, access to high-speed internet has produced tangible benefits for businesses, banks, hotels, educational institutions, hospitals, among others. Increased and cheaper bandwidth would also open up tremendous opportunities for e-government applications, improving governance and accountability to citizens; an exciting focus for Sierra Leone.
But there is unfinished business in order to fully capture the benefits of the submarine cable.
During the launch of the project on September 2, 2011, President Ernest Koroma reiterated the government’s commitment to reform the regulatory environment in the telecommunication sector. The government has made clear its commitment to liberalize the international gateway, ideally before the cable is commercialized in 2012. Soon, the government will announce a timetable and also submit to Parliament legislation to replace the existing telecommunications law.
Consumers would benefit most in the liberalizing of the gateway, which should help greater competition, and help move to a “low margin – high volume” environment. The dramatic increase in the number of mobile connections worldwide is a testament to the benefits of allowing greater competition in the telecom sector. The second priority is to have greater involvement of the private sector in the ICT sector, where the government plans to divest at least 50 percent of shares in Sierra Leone Cable Limited (SALCAB), which is currently fully owned by government and is the only shareholder representing the Sierra Leone government in ACE.
Vijay Pillai, the World Bank Country Manager in Sierra Leone, underscores this point when he says that “a 21st century infrastructure like broadband should have 21st century business and regulatory practices to accompany it.”