Since the announcement of the EASSy undersea cable in 2005, Open Access has been a term of significant debate in the development of undersea cable initiatives and in the general strategic development of communication infrastructure in Africa.  Yet, it is a term that is variously understood and often abused especially by the marketing departments of undersea cable initiatives.  There is not an African undersea cable initiative that doesn’t claim to be Open Access but all operate on different ownership and pricing models.

Put simply, Open Access embodies the principle of enabling competition at every layer and every point of the communications infrastructure.  Communications infrastructure depends on a chain of access and if even one link in the chain is controlled by a single entity, then the entire network is vulnerable to monopolistic rent-seeking behaviour.  Thus to have Open Access, there must be competition in the provision international fibre access, national backhaul solutions, and last mile services, whether fixed, mobile, or nomadic.  Not to mention competition in the provision of services over that network whether content or transaction related.  The opposite of Open Access are vertical markets controlled by single entity or a small cartel of entities.  A good example of this was as recently as 2007 when Telkom South Africa controlled access to the then only undersea cable, SAT3, and also controlled the fixed-line local loop.  Now we have two and soon three undersea cables and a form of local-loop unbundling for Internet service provision.

On Wednesday morning, I shall have the good fortune to engage Yochai Benkler in a discussion on the topic of Open Access infrastructure in Africa and inspired by the range and thoughtfulness of the feedback that Erik Hersmann obtained recently when he asked “What would you say to Nokia Africa?“, I thought this might be another opportunity crowdsource some perspectives on Open Access in Africa.  For the record, I am not referring to the Open Access initiative for academic publishing.  That is an excellent initiative but unrelated to Open Access infrastructure policies.

Yochai Benkler, author of the Wealth of Networks, was also the Principal Investigator for a comparative study of broadband initiatives carried out by the Berkman Center and commissioned by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.  Entitled “Next Generation Connectivity: A review of broadband Internet transitions and policy from around the world“, it reviewed efforts, mostly in OECD countries, to strategically develop pervasive, affordable, high-speed access infrastructure.  A key finding of the study was that countries that have successfully implemented Open Access policies tended to have better and more affordable access.

That brings to Wednesday.  Yochai’s experience is more in the rich world.  My goal is to provide an overview of attempts, successes, failures to implement Open Access policies in Africa.  I know some of these stories but it would make the conversation that much more interesting to have other stories to draw on.  In exchange, I promise to post back what I’ve learned from our conversation.

Help me out, please?

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data