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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Uganda lays wrong ICT cable!

As it happens, Uganda is laying the wrong fibre optic cable for the national backbone infrastructure, local and international experts have said.

Uganda is using the G652 type whereas it should be using G655 for the kind of data Uganda will need to transmit. But despite instructions from the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Parliament to halt the second phase until the technical issues have been resolved, the Chinese company, Huawei Technologies, has refused to stop. Every day the works continue, the company is using up more of the $106m (Ush212b) for what experts say will prove to be a ‘white elephant’.

The National Transmission Backbone Infrastructure and related e-Government Infrastructure is a project funded by a concessional loan from the export/import bank (EXIM) of China. Uganda has to pay back the loan over a period of 20 years.
The Chinese government sourced and recommended Huawei Technologies to carry out the implementation. There was no tender and according to inside sources, no proper needs assessment study prior to implementation. One source said a project document from Malawi was simply copied and the word ‘Malawi’ changed into ‘Uganda’.

The project involves building a 2,100 km fibre optic cable network linking 20 major towns, making Internet accessible and affordable to the majority of Ugandans and enabling e-Government. Ultimately, it is meant to be linked to the submarine cables that have recently arrived at the East African coast and provide faster and cheaper Internet access to Uganda. The backbone infrastructure is very instrumental for Uganda’s development, and will determine whether the country will catch the ICT train or miss it.

The UN has established that there is a direct link between the spread of Internet and economic growth. The International Telecommunication Union found that every 1% increase in Internet penetration results into a $593 increment to GDP per capita.
Yet, contrary to neighbouring Rwanda, the country might miss the train due to an inadequate network and outdated technology that experts predict will constantly break down.

Questions about the type of cable were raised as far back as June 2009. In a brief to the ICT minister, the Project Implementation Unit recommended a shift from G652 to G655. It argued that the cable used has Four Wavelength Mixing, a "phenomenon that introduces signal distortion that is extremely difficult to overcome". It also said the cable has very high levels of chromatic dispersion, "a phenomenon that introduces errors during signal transmission".

More concerns about the type of cable were raised in a document drafted in September by the parliamentary committee on ICT. The committee found that the bandwidth per fibre was too small. Bandwidth is the amount of traffic the fibre can carry simultaneously. The G655 has a capacity of transmitting 40Gb per second, whereas the current one can only transmit 2.5Gb, upgradable to 10Gb. Experts say this is insufficient for Uganda’s current needs. It cannot provide for future growth, bearing in mind that other countries, like Rwanda, may tap on the same infrastructure. "The G652 cable does not have enough provision for future upgrade path for higher data rates, multiple channels and longer distances," said the ICT committee.

One expert explained that it will be like driving traffic from a 10-lane road converging onto a one-lane road; leading to huge traffic jams. "Projects like e-health or e-education using video-links may become difficult if not impossible to run across the country because they require huge bandwidth," the expert said. Makerere University had planned to set up five up-country centres allowing students to attend classes at the main campus through a video-link. Such projects, the expert said, may be excluded with this type of cable as data and video traffic grows across the country.

The committee also established that the reachable dispersion distance for the current cable is less than half of the G655. This is the distance from where the optical signal, or light, dissipates or phases out. According to the ICT committee, the reachable distance of the G652 is 80km, whereas the signal for the G655 can reach over 210km. When the signal phases out, it needs to be regenerated through 'boosters', which are expensive to build and maintain. It will also greatly contribute to 'down time' of the infrastructure, meaning the system will shut down.

Another concern raised is the number of cores of fibre that has been installed. The cable being laid is only a 24 core fibre, whereas experts recommend 96 cores as a minimum to ensure that future growth in data and video usage is not interrupted.

The number of cores determines the number of separate channels. Security sensitive information, for example, is preferably transmitted through a separate channel. "The advantage of more cores is that they can be distributed over a much wider area," an international ICT expert told Siasa Duni. "In some instances, the cores not used by the Government could be leased to third party providers, making it a profitable business." Uganda will need this additional income to pay off the Chinese loan.

Besides the type of cable, experts have also raised questions about the price. Rwanda spent $38m to cover a distance of 2,300km to connect 35 sites. Uganda, on the other hand, will spend $61.6m to cover 2,100km.

That means that Uganda will spend about $30,000 per kilometre on the project, whereas Rwanda will spend $16,000 per kilometre. This is despite the fact that Rwanda is using the G655 type, the one recommended by experts, which is slightly more expensive.

MPs and officials of the National Information Technology Authority (NITA) are particularly worried that the Chinese company is continuing the works without any supervision. The Auditor General, in his December report, already criticised the lack of proper supervision during the first phase. He noted that the Project Implementation Unit was only set up six months after the works had started. "By this time, substantial amount of work on the contract had been undertaken," the report says. "Capacity was still lacking in terms of numbers and expertise, with the unit manned by only six technical staff, out of which only four were field-based." NITA and the ICT committee have demanded the immediate suspension of the works pending an entire review of the project based on a proper needs assessment study. "A full technical audit is urgently required to save whatever is left of the $106m, and immediate steps need to be taken to rectify the situation," said a source. "Otherwise potentially fatal technical problems are facing both the National Backbone Infrastructure and e-Government."

Missing the ICT train, NITA says, will be catastrophic for the future of Uganda. "Wasting $106m is bad enough. But the loss of the money is nothing compared to the long-term consequences of missing the ICT revolution."

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