The IT sector in Gabon may still be in a nascent stage, but it is expected to leap ahead in the next two years with the pending launch of the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine fibre-optic cable. Under the Digital Gabon Plan, the state has committed to make the country a digital economy by 2016. While the current low level of internet penetration means that this will require considerable public and private sector effort to achieve, it also means there are significant opportunities for growth going forward.

PUBLIC PLANNING: Government plans for the sector are two-fold. Firstly, the state is working to put in place a countrywide network of fibre-optic cable infrastructure, the “national backbone”, that will support the expansion of broadband internet access outside of the capital. Secondly, the state is leading several projects to harness new ICT connections with the aim of accelerating economic and social development.

The government has made the development of the ICT sector a national priority, and plans to invest considerable sums to get its slate of projects off the ground. A competitive private sector has emerged, as mobile operators and internet service providers (ISPs) vie for market share. However, before the private sector can take off, the government has a critical role to play in establishing the digital infrastructure needed to support the anticipated demand for IT services. According to the Ministry of the Digital Economy, the state is planning $68m in investment in 2013-14 to facilitate the development of the IT sector.

INFRASTRUCTURE BUILDING: With the initial ACE cable landings completed in Libreville and Port-Gentil, the state is now extending fibre-optic cable throughout the rest of the country. The expansion plan has a submarine and a land-based component. Gabon aims to extend the submarine cable further along the coast to landings in Gamba, Mayumba and Pointe-Noire in the Republic of the Congo.

A $58m loan facility extended in April 2012 by the World Bank will go towards funding the terrestrial expansion of the fibre-optic backbone. The next stage of work, expected to begin in 2013, will be to extend the cable to Franceville, a major city in the southeast. From there it will be extended to Lekoni, Koulamoutou and on to the Congolese border.

The loan is part of the €157m Central African Backbone Programme (CAB), which receives support from the World Bank and the African Development Bank. The CAB project aims to promote the use of advanced technologies throughout the region by facilitating IT infrastructure connections. This stage of the national backbone infrastructure is scheduled for completion in 2016, and will provide a minimum broadband connection of 50 Mbps at all points in its network. The ACE will ultimately connect several countries in the region under the CAB project, including Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Republic of the Congo and Equatorial Guinea.

The World Bank loan facility also provides for the creation of an internet exchange point in Gabon, in order to ensure the exchange of traffic between different ISP networks within the country. This will help to increase service efficiency and further reduce internet prices, as traffic is currently handled by third-party exchanges outside of the country. This could also open the door for Gabon to serve as a hub for the sub-region in the future. Project studies have been completed, and the next step will be to seek partners to install the technical platform.

IMPROVING PUBLIC RESPONSIVENESS: In addition to establishing basic infrastructure, the state is developing a number of digital projects that should create a more modern, responsive public sector and help to encourage economic growth.

The government is the largest consumer of ICT and spends a considerable amount each year on internal communication. To accelerate communication and minimise waste, the government is implementing a wireless broadband project that aims to create a digital telecoms platform for the government and its agencies. It started with the creation of a dedicated WiMAX network, which allows for free internal communication and will boost broadband internet usage. The National Agency for Digital Infrastructure and Frequencies (Agence Nationale des Infrastructures Numériques et des Fréquences, ANINF) has installed 16 base terminal stations (BTS) around the Libreville area, which will also benefit hospitals, schools and other public infrastructure. So far, 500 WiMAX internet keys have been distributed to public employees.

The government plans to continue to expand the programme in the short term, but it will likely switch from WiMAX to 3G or even 4G long-term evolution (LTE) technology once these become widely available. An additional 65 BTS are planned for construction, which will require considerable hardware purchases in the coming years. In the long term, once a national LTE network is established, the state aims to launch the Cloud Gabon project. This is meant to increase the country’s cloud-computing capacity and to move a number of general-use applications to the cloud, possibly related to agriculture, health, education and government. Initial project studies were scheduled to be completed by mid-2013, and the first public tenders could be launched between 2014 and 2015.

CONNECTED GOVERNMENT: On a broader scale, the government is also pursuing a project to create digital connections between all ministries, public agencies and local administrators nationwide. The Gabon Administrative Network (Réseau de l’Administration Gabonaise, RAG) will rely on a mixture of fibre-optic, satellite and radio technologies. The project was launched in 2010, and by the second quarter of 2013, a total of 43 km of fibre-optic cable had been laid around Libreville and 40 public buildings had been connected to the network. Ultimately, the RAG should help to strengthen information sharing within the government from local councils up to the ministry level, which will help to maintain a clearer picture of, for example, health and education needs nationwide.

Two more projects aim to improve the administration’s interface with the public both at home and abroad. Under the Gabon Online project, ANINF is establishing websites for all ministries and providing email addresses for state employees. In the short term, ministries will begin making administrative documents available for download. This should help to clarify and accelerate administrative procedures, such as those pertaining to taxes, public services and other civic functions. Ideally, ANINF aims to head towards e-government, where certain procedures and applications could be carried out online. However, this is a long-term goal and will require additional investment in back-office operations. In addition, management of Gabon’s top-level domain name, “.ga,” was transferred from Gabon Telecom to ANINF, which began handling new registrations in 2012.

SOCIAL IMPACT: The government is also working to speed up economic and social development by introducing new applications for the education and health sectors. With education, the government plans to roll out a student identification system, which will issue an ID number to each student and allow for more efficient monitoring of student progress. The ID system will protect against cases of fraud, such as students who are required to repeat a grade or are not eligible to sit for standardised exams.

The government is also pushing to increase the use of IT in schools to enrich the learning experience. The first step in this effort is to create 50 “digital classrooms” around Libreville, which will be used to train teachers in the use of computers and other information technologies. The first digital classroom was inaugurated in Libreville in June 2012. A total of 600 instructors are expected to receive training in the project’s first phase, and the government ultimately aims to have several hundred digital classrooms.

The state is also working to transfer more responsibility for health care to the local level by creating health councils, made up of administrators and practitioners, in each of the 51 health departments. Each council will be tasked with gathering and digitally recording local health data, including the number of health care professionals, the number of births and their condition, as well as the number and cause of deaths. According to plans, health departments will be equipped with the technology needed to maintain digital records, which will be centralised in a Ministry of Health database. Increasing the store of specific health data should help to better assess the national disease burden and inform health policy decisions.

DEVELOPING CAPACITY: With a variety of projects in the works, the government is likely to remain the primary consumer of ICT services. However, all IT components are imported currently, and the sector faces a shortage of qualified personnel at both the management and technical levels. Opportunities for training and the development of domestic IT companies will need to be expanded in the future to reach the government’s long-term goal of developing a high-performing digital economy and related industries.