Last week, 12 June 2009, a regional workshop in Dar es Salaam brought together 28 participants from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda.
The theme: Community Fiber.
So far, community networking has mostly been associated with wireless and other low cost technologies. Fiber most definitely was not one of them.
As a side comment -
it is pretty unclear what we mean when saying “community networking”. Just try google for a definition. Or look at this long discussion thread on the community informatics researcher list. But for now we will leave that aside and assume a community network to be a network owned and controlled by its users, in some way, directly or indirectly.
However, we are beginning to see community networking leaving the wireless domain, and moving to fiber. Why is that so, and why now?
Let s look at two regions very different from one another, Eastern Africa and Scandinavia, and question the notion of fiber being expensive.
True, when a scandinavian company or household seeks to buy fiber to the house or office, this will cost a few thousand USD, even if it s only a few meters of fiber.
Reliable statistics about fiber deployment cost in urban areas in the USA and Europe are hard to come by, but most experts and deployers end up with estimates around (several) 10,000 USD per kilometer.
Regardless, there is a long and successful history of user owned (fiber) networks in Scandinavia – often linked to social entities like housing cooperations (e.g. the danish Andelsforeninger), these networks typically integrate internet, phine and TV and often connect 100s and 1000s of households. Their size makes them accepted negotiation partners of the ISPs ad providers – they have accumulated critical market mass.
Doing research on fiber deployment cost in Eastern Africa, you find costs of only about USD 1000 per kilometer, sometimes significantly lower.
While part of the cost is driven by technology that is artificially kept expensive, most of it obviously is cost of labour – and this opens a window of opportunity for countries where labour is comparatively cheap.
A norwegian company recently demonstrated how much money there is to save for deployers by letting the customer dig their own trench: USD 400 off your bill.
With deployment cost under USD 1000 / km, fiber begins to compete with wireless links: a reliable, carrier grade kilometer on 802.11 will cost you at least in the same order of magnitude, some 100s of dollars.
While wireless clearly is attractive and often the only option for the first mile (the mile from the user/customer to her ISP or communtiy infrastructure), it runs into bandwidth limits when used as infrastructure.
And with the new network tiger states putting the benchmark at “Gigabytes to the home if you want to be competitive”, future oriented network initiatives need to look at that. In this context, the undeniable success of mobile data in large parts of sub-saharan africa is not only insufficient, but even a dangerous dead end – when it is mistaken for a infrastructure solution rather than a first mile commodity.
And why does fiber become even more exciting right now, especially in southern and eastern africa?
african undersea cables / @ manypossibilities.net
Because of the arrival of the fat undersea cables. Three independent new cables are starting operations these days: SEACOM, EASSy and TEAMS. Read more about it on this excellent update page at manypossibilities.net
The SEACOM cable reportedly has started operations, though discussions on the relevant mailing lists (e.g. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/eThinkTankTz/ )are lively, regarding whether it just has been “officially” or “really” opened. The discussion is interesting, because of an underlying question:
Who is or will be ready to fill the fiber with light? Who is or will be ready to become customer to the agencies offering bandwidth? Will it – once again – only be privileged (global) corporate customers, or will communities, NGOs, small businesses be able to connect?
seacom arriving in kenya / c the conomist
In Tanzania for example, there are many existing islands of fiber deployment – once connected upstream, these could open for a new era of connectivity in the country – if, and only if, there are infrastructures ready to interconnect and pass on the light.
Not to forget in this context: the existing and upstarting RENs (Research and Education Networks), university campus networks, and so forth.
It is about the ability of working together in communities across sectors, the importance of accumulating market power and building scaling critical mass, as has been demonstrated by the – admittedly very different – scandinavian Andelsnetworks.