Net gains: Web access is set to continue to grow with government support

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Increasing demand for digital services and the commercialisation of access to Gabon’s second submarine cable are helping to lay the foundations for a rise in activity in the country’s ICT sector. Greater bandwidth – combined with mobile data coverage via 3G and 4G – is likely to boost the number of internet users in the country, but a push by the state to improve ICT service uptake through initiatives such as e-government and e-learning is also having an effect.

The government has committed to transitioning the country to a digital economy by 2016, and has provided some $68m in investment in national infrastructure in recent years to help reach this goal. Gabon was the region’s leader in the World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index 2015, ranked 122nd out of 143 countries, with neighbouring Cameroon ranked 136th.

OVERSIGHT: The National Agency for Digital Infrastructure and Frequencies (Agence Nationale des Infrastructures Numériques et des Fré quences, ANINF) was created in 2011 to oversee Gabon’s digital transition. While the Ministry of the Digital Economy, Communications and Postal Services remains responsible for policymaking, the public agency manages the planning, installation and application of all digital projects, including telecommunications, audio-visual and IT.

Developing digital infrastructure is a national priority, as indicated by the decision to place ANINF, established by executive decree, under the direct control of the presidency.

INTERNET USAGE: Falling prices in both mobile and fixed internet services have driven growth in internet usage in recent years. The total number of internet subscribers reached 1.15m in 2014, nearly double the 2013 figure of 620,221, according to the Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services (Autorité de Régulation des Communications Électroniques et des Postes, ARCEP). The overall internet penetration rate has increased significantly in recent years, reaching 76% in 2014, up from just 41% in 2013.

MOBILE INTERNET: Mobile internet usage surpassed the fixed internet market due to the latter’s comparatively high access prices. In 2014, the number of mobile internet subscribers grew by 90% year-on-year (y-o-y) to reach 1.11m.

Growth in the number of fixed-line internet subscribers in Gabon has been slower, increasing by 8.5% y-o-y to 10,737 in 2014.

The overall rise in internet usage can be largely attributed to the falling prices seen in recent years. The increased broadband capacity offered by the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable should bring continued growth to the segment. With the introduction of 3G and 4G services in 2014 and the anticipated expansion of these in 2015, the mobile market is expected to continue growing.

INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDERS: Gabon’s internet service provider (ISP) sector is competitive, with 10 mobile operators and ISPs vying for market share. The country’s four telecoms providers are also Gabon’s largest ISPs, as a result of the dominance of mobile connectivity over fixed line.

Airtel continues to lead the market, with 63.8% of the country’s internet subscribers (734,121) by the end of 2014. Gabon Telecom Mobile, formerly Libertis, followed, with 23.1% (265,399). Moov had 8.95% (102,950), while Azur ended the year with a 0.4% share (4082). Another six ISPs round out the market: IG Telecom, Solsi, GBM, IPI9, Digicom and Boost Africa Wifly. Combined, they accounted for 34,000 subscribers in 2014, around 3% of all users. However, they held 22% of total sector turnover, which reached CFA40.5bn (€60.8m).

“The ICT sector in Gabon experiences fair competition, with raw margins under 10%; combine those low margins with the current liquidity crisis and we may see ICT companies leaving the market,” Noureddine Bedoui, the administrator managing director at BS Gabon, told OBG.

Due to high access prices and limited cable bandwidth in the past, ISPs have mostly developed their networks through very small aperture terminal (VSAT) and WiMAX technology. Reliance on satellite connections allows ISPs to expand their coverage outside of urban areas and maintain more direct control over their pricing.

NATIONAL BANDWIDTH: As has been the case in many African economies, insufficient broadband connectivity has been a barrier to development in the IT sector, but the situation in Gabon has improved noticeably. It is one of 19 African countries that are connected to the ACE submarine fibre-optic cable, stretching 17,000 km from France to South Africa, which is expected to bring significant changes to the sector, increasing capacity and access throughout the country.

Gabon has been supplied by a single fibre-optic submarine cable, the South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable (SAT-3/WASC), since 2002, which was long limited to 1.2 Gbps but reached a capacity of 12.5 Gbps in 2014 and 15 Gbps in 2015. Gabon Telecom, the formerly state-owned telecoms operator, had a monopoly over access to the cable until 2012, which limited market competitiveness and resulted in underutilisation of the cable’s capacity. The monopoly was dissolved in 2012, and operators have been using SAT-3/WASC until the ACE cable is activated, rather than opting for satellite coverage at a higher cost. “The commercialisation of the second gateway is boosting the connectivity of Gabon, because new infrastructure will be of better quality than the ageing SAT-3/ WASC,” Raz Biramah, the CEO of IPI9, told OBG.

SERVING AN ACE: The new ACE cable quadrupled national bandwidth to some 4.9 Gbps, completing its first phase at the end of 2012 and providing the capacity needed to accommodate increased demand for the long-awaited 3G and 4G services, which were launched in 2014. As the cable is open to all operators, internet access is expected to improve, accompanied by lower prices. The initial cable landing points were completed in Libreville and Port-Gentil in 2012, with more recent efforts focused on rolling out the fibre-optic network throughout the rest of the country. The expansion plan includes both land-based and submarine components. The government is aiming to extend the submarine cable along the coast to landings in Gamba, Mayumba and PointeNoire in the Republic of the Congo.

A POSITIVE SPIN: While ANINF is responsible for the construction of telecoms and digital infrastructure, once built, the management of all public IT infrastructure is ceded to the National Digital Infrastructure Company (Société de Patrimoine des Infrastructures Numériques, SPIN). SPIN is responsible for regulating bandwidth tariffs and access conditions, as well as overseeing the operation and maintenance of the networks by private contractors.

SPIN issued a tender in 2014 to select a private company to manage, maintain and commercialise access to the ACE cable. In February 2015, the French infrastructure company Axione, part of the Bouygues Energies and Services group, was awarded the contract to operate and maintain Gabon’s submarine and terrestrial fibre-optic network. While access to the cable has been delayed several times, concrete plans to move forward with the project and Airtel’s connection to the cable in early 2015 are facilitating faster data transfers and more reliable connections.

FIBRE-OPTIC BACKBONE: The improvement in international connectivity is being mirrored by efforts to improve domestic connectivity. Authorities are working to extend the network of fibre-optic cable infrastructure across the country to support expansion of broadband internet access outside the capital. The benefits are clear: ANINF estimates that a 10% increase in bandwidth capacity generates a rise in GDP of about 1.3%.

The first phase of expansion will see the cable extended from Libreville to Franceville, the country’s third-largest population centre located in the south-east, with a subsequent phase extending further on to Lekoni, Koulamoutou and finally on to a connection point on the Congolese border.

In October 2014, ANINF awarded the long-awaited contract to build the connection between Libreville and Franceville to China Communications Services International. Construction is expected to begin in the third quarter of 2015 and reach completion in late 2016.

The link, which is set to be Gabon’s main fibre-optic artery, will largely follow the Transgabonais railway, crossing the country from west to east. This development will allow ISPs and telecoms companies to roll out their 3G and 4G networks in five provinces: Estuaire, Moyen-Ogooué, Haut-Ogooué, Ogooué-Lolo and Ogooué-Ivindo. Subsequent plans will see the building of ACE cable connectors to all nine provincial capitals.

In 2012, the World Bank committed to providing a $58m loan to support the terrestrial extension of the fibre-optic link as part of the Central African Backbone project, also supported by the African Development Bank, which seeks to promote the use of advanced technologies across the region by facilitating IT infrastructure connections, linking Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Republic of the Congo and Equatorial Guinea to the ACE cable. In January 2015 Airtel announced the commercial launch of the newly activated submarine fibre-optic connection between Libreville and Port-Gentil, stretching 187 km, with an additional 21 km of terrestrial fibre. The link leverages capacity on the ACE cable’s landing points, which have already been set up in both cities.

The World Bank is also supporting the creation of an internet exchange point in Gabon, allowing traffic between ISP networks to be exchanged locally. By avoiding third-party exchanges outside of the country, this initiative will help to increase efficiency of service and bring internet prices down. All of Gabon’s ISPs signed onto the project.

“Private companies are partnering with ANINF in order to participate in the distribution of fibre-optic capacity, which will reduce connection costs for companies,” Bedoui told OBG.

RURAL TECHNOLOGIES: Satellite and WiMAX technology continue to dominate the IT market outside of urban centres, being the most cost-effective option due to the difficult terrain in rural zones of the country. VSAT technology allows ISPs to provide their clients with a guaranteed connection speed, in contrast to submarine cables, which can be interrupted. Domestic networks experienced several service interruptions in the past year, with the longest lasting four days.

Local ISP IG Telecom formed a partnership with satellite broadband capacity provider O3b Networks in December 2014 in an effort to improve its coverage and service quality. This new partnership will extend the ISPs’ connectivity to areas of the country where it was previously non-existent or of a low quality. The arrangement will enable IG Telecom to use O3b’s medium Earth orbit satellites, reducing data transmission delays.

DIGITAL TELEVISION: The government has been working to fast-track the country’s transition to digital television to meet the international deadline of June 2015, which was set by the International Telecommunications Union, for the end of ultra-high-frequency analogue transmissions, which in turn will free up additional frequency spectrum for the expansion of 3G and 4G services.

Satellite television has developed a strong presence in Gabon with two foreign satellite operators, CanalSat and SatCon, providing access to a broad spectrum of domestic and international content. Local firm TNT Africa is promoting the use of digital terrestrial television (DTTV), which can transmit 8-10 channels on a single frequency, reducing operating costs and maximising available data capacity compared to analogue.

By mid-2012, an estimated 300,000 subscribers had switched to DTTV. However, with a segment of the population still left outside of the digital system, additional public or private investment will be needed to cover the cost of closing the gap.

The transition is expected to increase the number of available channels, with plans for the addition of three new general-interest channels and four new local special-interest channels as well as a number of new foreign channels.

WORKFORCE: One of the biggest challenges to the sector’s development is human resources, with a considerable shortage of qualified personnel at both the technical and management levels, in part due to a limited range of educational and training programmes adapted to the ICT sector.

The Institut Africain d’Informatique is one of the country’s main professional schools, offering training programmes for computer programmers and analysts, as well as for IT business management and engineering. However, the majority of the sector’s employees continue to be educated abroad or trained in-house.

“The shortage of skilled workers is a major challenge for the IT sector. With few schools in Gabon adapted to sector needs, we have to train our employees ourselves to get the results we want” Jean-Louis Barthélémy, director of commercial development at BS Gabon, told OBG.

This situation has prompted some companies to attempt to expand the potential pool of local ICT graduates over the medium and long term. In November 2014, Airtel announced a programme in collaboration with UNESCO to train 5000 Gabonese young people in ICT over three years.

PARKLIFE: As part of the ongoing effort to attract new sources of foreign investment and increase private sector development in IT, the Gabonese authorities plan to develop a national network of IT parks in the country’s primary population centres over the coming years.

The main park, to be called Mandji Island Cyber City, will be a part of Port-Gentil’s special economic zone. Six additional parks are being planned for Libreville, Franceville, Boué, Oyem, Lambaréné and Mouila. These parks will also be set up as special economic zones, and will provide various incentives, such as preferential income tax rates, unrestricted financial transfers and a one-stop registration platform for ICT companies.

Over the long term, data centres to support the Cloud Gabon project, intended to increase the country’s cloud-computing capacity and to move a number of general-use applications to the cloud, will be set up within the parks.

E-GOVERNMENT EFFORTS: The authorities are also working to develop digital connections between all ministries, public agencies and local administrators across the country. The Gabon Administrative Network (Réseau de l’ Administration Gabonaise, RAG) relies on a combination of fibre-optic, satellite and radio technologies.

With the project launched in 2010, ANINF had laid a total of 80 km of fibre-optic cable by April 2015, including 40 km around Libreville and 40 km around provincial capitals, to connect the network. RAG is expected to improve information sharing within all branches of the government.

Under the Gabon Online project, ANINF is working to establish a website for every ministry and an email address for each of the country’s 110,000 civil servants. ANINF is also developing online forms and applications for a number of administrative procedures. An e-tax system was rolled out in 2013 through the Ministry of Economy, enabling companies to pay their taxes online.

Plans to develop additional online services include e-visas, which will enable foreigners to request a visa online before arriving in Gabon. This initiative is expected to facilitate business travel to the country and to expand the tourism sector by simplifying the application process for visas.

EDUCATION: The development of e-education is also a priority for the government, with projects under way to develop online services for school administrators, teachers and students.

Monitoring of student progress is expected to improve with the government’s student identification system, which will assign an ID number and maintain an online file for every student. ANINF is also overseeing the creation of 50 digital classrooms around Libreville for teacher training.

HEALTH: In addition, the government is working to create health councils in each of Gabon’s 51 health departments, which will be equipped with the technology needed to maintain digital records, stored in a centralised database by the Ministry of Health.

This initiative is expected to facilitate a clearer assessment of the national disease burden and other issues in the health care system than is currently possible, to better inform policy decisions.

OUTLOOK: The increasing affordability of mobile internet has resulted in a rapid uptick in usage, a trend which is expected to endure as prices continue to drop under the pressure of heightened competition. The number of internet users should continue to grow in the coming year, though the rate of growth is expected to slow down as the market gradually becomes saturated. “Content providers are only taking off now, with local brands developing services specially geared towards Gabonese consumers,” Biramah told OBG.

As competition drives prices for the new 3G and 4G services downwards, Gabon will likely see a sharp uptick in demand for broadband capacity. The public sector will continue to seek to encourage the country’s transition to a digital economy, with ministries moving more services to online platforms and increasing their use of IT services.

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The Report: Gabon 2015

Telecoms & IT chapter from The Report: Gabon 2015

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