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Speeding up affordable access to broadband Internet in MENA

Michel Rogy's picture

Ensuring that backbone telecommunications networks are widely accessible, of good quality, and delivered efficiently and competitively is critical to boosting productivity and international competitiveness in the MENA region. They are major determinants of production costs and speeding up affordable access to broadband Internet will ultimately result in higher employment, growth, and improved living standards.

Because of a relatively limited coverage of copper access networks in most MENA countries, broadband wireless technology is currently the region’s largest driver of broadband data traffic. The region is relatively well endowed with international submarine cables and thus has a high potential for international broadband connectivity.

Insufficient national fiber optic connectivity could, however, lead to inability to meet demand for increasingly large bandwidth capacities. There is also an increased risk of digital divide within many MENA countries because abundant international broadband connectivity is not disseminated into rural and remote areas.

Increased use of 3G broadband wireless technology (and in the medium term of 4G/LTE) as the main means of broadband access nationwide is expected to negatively impact on the underlying backbone networks. The traffic generated by broadband wireless access exceeds voice traffic by far and is already a severe stretch on the capacity of the original radio link backbone and backhaul technology.

Alternative fiber optic infrastructure, which was deployed by public utilities for their own purposes using rights of ways granted for highways, railways, electricity grids, and oil / gas pipes, can contribute to the development of fiber optic backbones in many MENA countries. For instance, in Tunisia, utilities own about a quarter of the total 20,000 km of fiber optic infrastructure, covering areas of the country underserved by backbones of the telecoms operators.

To use the excess capacity of such alternative infrastructure effectively, several issues need to be addressed, in particular:

·         Legal and regulatory uncertainties. Existing legal and regulatory frameworks often need to be reviewed to allow utilities to make excess capacities on their fiber optic infrastructure available to telecoms operators and to specify regulatory obligations such as non-discrimination (e.g., avoiding exclusive agreements) or transparency.  National telecoms regulators should also be fully empowered to intervene in such cases of alternative (not telecom) infrastructure.

·         Licensing concerns. Utilities may consider either directly leasing unused optical fibres (“dark fibers”) to telecoms operators or setting up a pure infrastructure operator activity. In Morocco, the national grid (ONE) has been leasing fibers since 2007, including to Spain via a submarine optical cable associated with the electrical cables crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. By contrast, Finetis (part of the French Marais group) was authorized to become a pure infrastructure operator, deploying a 2,000 km alternative network with the Moroccan highway administration (ADM) and leasing it to telecoms operators.

·         Co-deployment of new infrastructure / co-ordination of civil works. Even where existing excess fiber optic capacity is limited, costs of further expanding national backbone could be significantly reduced by better coordination of civil engineering projects involving utilities. A holistic approach could include laws mandating coordination of civil works, a database of all planned civil works, recommendations on possible cost-sharing models, and reference agreements on co-deployment and effective resolution of disputes.

Alternative infrastructure can also contribute to a fully redundant regional network, allowing alternative and competitive routes at sub-regional level. For instance, in the Gulf, the GCC Interconnection Authority (GCCIA) is a joint stock company subscribed by the six Gulf States, namely, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The core activities of this company consist in linking powers grids across the GCC countries and operating and maintaining the interconnection grid. GCCIA is leasing out its fiber optical cable network to operators.

By contrast, in North Africa, there is only one terrestrial fiber optic system (“Ibn Khaldoun”) which provides regional optical continuity between just four countries: Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. It is operated by incumbent operators and predominantly used for voice transport.  

Alternative infrastructure spanning from Morocco to Egypt has significant potential to increase interconnectivity within countries of the same culture and language, and to enable reciprocal accessibility and back-up between data centers being installed in the sub region. Realizing this potential is critical to boosting productivity and international competitiveness across the region.

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