Connectivity challenges in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Liquid deploys 2,500km fibre network to DRC

The telecommunications sector in any country is considered one of the economy’s main pillars and sources of income. However, many factors can affect its evolution and the development it could have achieved if it was not for such influencing elements such as poor infrastructure. This is the case of a great number of African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The DRC has come a long way in terms of ICT and telecommunication development, especially with the efforts deployed in terms of LTE connectivity and submarine cable projects which have boosted the sector and allowed the country to enjoy a relatively better connectivity.

Almost a decade ago, the cost of internet access in DRC was exorbitant and did not match the quality of service offered to users. This was due to the monopoly and the lack of fibre optic infrastructure. Given the limited capacity of fixed-line infrastructure, mobile network operators have become the main provider of internet connectivity. Vodacom, Orange, Airtel and Africell are the four major mobile operators in the country.

The mobile market

The latest report by the DRC’s regulating body ARPTC (Autorité de Régulation de la Poste et des Télécommunications du Congo) on the mobile market’s first quarter of 2020 shows that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mobile data and mobile money indicators grew while voice traffic registered a drastic decrease.

During the same period, the number of subscribers grew by 2.56% with a positive variation of the penetration rate of 1.1%. In addition, mobile operators’ revenues increased by 0.51% to reach 381.68 million US dollars. This increase was driven by mobile data revenues that rose 12.58%.  Vodacom has registered the highest market share in both voice and data subscription.  

In May 2018, LTE licenses were issued and Vodacom and Orange were the first two operators to launch the country’s first commercial LTE networks. 5G is now a far-fetched goal in the Democratic Republic of Congo, just as is the case for most sub-Saharan African countries.

Wholesale industry guarantees connectivity

It was the West Africa Cable System (WACS) completed in 2012 that opened up new horizons for DRC’s telecoms services. The WACS consists of four fibre pairs. It was initially designed with 128 wavelengths per fibre pair, running at 10 Gbps per wavelength, and initial design capacity of 5.12 Tbps. The initial investment of WACS is about US$650million. In May 2015, Huawei Marine completed an upgrade of WACS (Upgrade I) using 100Gbps technology, increasing the WACS system design capacity to 14.5Tbit/s. In Feb 2019, the WACS Upgrade II was completed with Huawei Marine’s solutions to support 32*100Gbps from South Africa to Portugal.

The WACS submarine cable entered service in DRC in 2013. However, outages highlighted the sector’s vulnerabilities and the need for a more robust infrastructure to rely on.

In 2020, one of the major turning points was the ARPCT granting Liquid Telecom a license to build a subsea cable landing station in the country. Liquid Telecom’s landing station is expected to connect DRC to Google’s Equiano subsea cable which will link Africa and Europe.

Most recently, the leading telecommunications and information technology provider in Africa and the Middle East, Benya Group revealed the signing of the final contract between Benya represented by Engineer Ahmed Mekky, Chairman of the Board of Directors and CEO, and the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology of the Democratic Republic of the Congo represented by Minister Augustin E. Maliba to build and operate a national fibre optic network connecting the main cities of DRC to provide high-speed internet services to citizens.

“Under the terms of the contract, Benya will cooperate with the Democratic Republic of Congo to fund, build and operate the fibre optic network in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, marking the beginning of a fruitful partnership that will lead to a bright future for the country and its citizens”, said Engineer Ahmed Mekky.

Moreover, AST SpaceMobile, in partnership with Vodafone Group, unveiled in December 2020 plans to launch the first phase of its space-based commercial mobile communications service in 2023. AST SpaceMobile will be the first service of its kind to connect standard mobile phones at 4G and 5G speeds using AST SpaceMobile’s patented space-based network.

Today, more than five billion mobile subscribers constantly move in and out of wireless coverage, and AST SpaceMobile’s solution will fill these coverage gaps to enable people to stay connected whilst on the move.

The initial service will target an area North and South of the equator, including rural and remote areas of a number of markets where Vodafone will integrate the technology into the services provided by its Vodacom, Safaricom and Vodafone brands. Subject to regulatory approval in each market, these will include DRC, Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania.

Such an initiative will allow users in DRC to stay connected at all times and enjoy a seamless experience they have long aspired to.

Digital transformation in progress

Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi announced plans in October 2020 to directly manage the development of the country’s digital economy himself, via a new instrument referred to as ‘Presidential Digital Coordination’ (PDC).

In the framework of digital transformation plans, the Egyptian Minister of Communications and Information Technology Amr Talaat discussed with his counterpart from DRC plans to strengthen cooperation between the two countries to boost the ICT sector. DRC can leverage Egypt’s expertise in digital transformation and ICT given the country’s several projects focusing on developing the ICT industry and fostering innovation.

As part of Egypt’s commitment to this, Benya Group has shown support to DRC startups by hosting them at Cairo ICT conference which was held on November 2020, two booths dedicated to startups in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first booth featured the startup “Robotic Generation”, which was founded to teach children between the ages of 5 and 15 how to explore the digital revolution and understand programmed machines and processes, such as coding and robotics.

The second booth was operated by the emerging company “Road-Way Tracking”, whose mission is to provide consumers and businesses with the best security and protection through telecommunications solutions while maintaining the highest quality standards of their services, as well as enhancing customer profitability, efficiency, and safety.

Engineer Ahmed Mekky said, “At Benya, we are digitally empowering companies and individuals to help them enhance the sustainability of their businesses, improve their productivity, and increase their profitability. We seek to make digital transformation a reality in Africa to create new opportunities and devise new ideas that will enable companies to deliver products of real value globally. Our work with the Democratic Republic of Congo and the support of startups in Egypt and Africa are two examples of how Benya is expanding while assuming a leadership role in advancing African ICT initiatives.”

COVID-19 has emphasized the need for digital transformation and the importance of having digitally-prepared systems in place. The pandemic can be a catalyst to accelerate digitization in all sectors, mainly education, health and government.

Given the need to face COVID-19’s impact, African countries have themselves obliged to develop their ICT industry through startups and digital initiative. In DRC, Kinshasa Digital Academy, which, at the request of the presidency and Ministry of Health, developed a website for raising awareness that garnered more than 100,000 visitors.

Furthermore, local initiatives were launched to embrace digital transformation during this pandemic including the creation of a Chatbot, through the coordination of Facebook with the Ministry of Health. This chatbot uses the WhatsApp platform that will assist the Covid-19 Response Advisory Board to fight against rumours and disinformation on the coronavirus pandemic.

At the level of the health sector, the DRC’s Ministry of Health launched in March 2019 a new national agency for clinical information and health informatics (Agence Nationale d’Ingénierie Clinique d’Information et d’Informatique de Santé)  or ANICiiS. It is the country’s first digital health agency which aims to accelerate the use of technology in the health system, notably telemedicine tools.

Now is the best time for DRC and all African countries to embrace digital transformation and seize the opportunities that have been indirectly offered by one of the world’s worst pandemics.

A solid digital transformation plan is capable of boosting all the industries in the country. The first step is for businesses to increase their online presence and offer more digital services. The public sector should also harness digital tools to enable digitization in the society and at the level of all formal procedures.

To support broader digitization, major infrastructure expansions will be required, including those in backbone networks and last-mile connectivity, as well as electricity supply. One important element to speed up digital transformation is having the right skills capable of ensuring a new digital environment.