African nations take joint approach to new network

Three regional economic blocs in Africa are now taking a joint approach to the Comtel telecommunications project, which had stalled as individual countries developed their own infrastructures.

At a recent meeting of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the groups resolved to work together to implement the Comtel regional infrastructure project. The decision was taken as representatives from the groups attended a joint task force on customs, trade and infrastructure.

The Comtel project is an initiative by 21 Comesa member countries to improve telecom infrastructure and connectivity. Zambia, Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda are some of the nations involved in the Comtel project, whose network is aimed at facilitating the transmission of voice, data and video to boost trade relations within and outside the Comesa region.

The Comtel network was supposed to be operational in the third quarter of this year. The project’s start date will be decided next month at a stakeholder’s meeting.

“The Africa Development Bank has finished a feasibility study whose report will be presented at the stakeholders meeting for consideration. This is when it will be decided when the project will start,” Comesa secretary general Erastus Mwencha said in an interview last week.

The project stalled after national telecommunication operators in individual member countries went ahead to develop their own telecom infrastructure projects, despite initial agreements to coordinate pricing and network infrastructure through Comtel. Zambia, Botswana and Kenya have all launched their own information and Communication technology (ICT) infrastructure development projects to enhance regional connectivity, following Comtel’s failure to quickly build its planned infrastructure and provide services.

The Botswana Telecommunication Corp. early this year launched the Trans-Karahari project aimed at connecting Zambia and Namibia to form a fiber-optic backbone.

Kenya has launched an undersea fiber-optic project that will connect East African countries that were supposed to be connected by the Comtel project.

The Zambia Telecommunication Company (Zamtel) is also working on an infrastructure development project to cater to international traffic by September 2008. The project will cost Zamtel US$48 million, according to the company’s managing director, Simon Tembo.

The Comtel project is expected to cost Comesa $30 million, down from the initial cost of $200 million. Since some of the countries are developing their own infrastructure-improvement projects, the amount of work to be done by the Comtel project has been reduced, which significantly lowered the project’s costs.