We recently sent a request to Telkom to send us a map of their terrestrial fibre network in South Africa.  This request was in the context of the AfTerFibre Project, which is attempting to crowdsource a comprehensive map of terrestrial fibre optic cables in Africa.  After some informal back and forth with Telkom staff it seemed that the best way to do this was to submit a PAIA request.  For non-South Africans reading this, PAIA is the Promotion of Access to Information Actwhich was created to:

give effect to the constitutional right of access to any information held by the State and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights; and to provide for matters connected therewith.

You can view the whole act on the website of the Department of International Affairs and Cooperation.  With Telkom being partly owned by the South African government, this seemed like a likely course of action.  Duly submitted, the response came back several weeks later in which our request was denied on every count.  Telkom’s Deputy Information Officer replied that:

In terms of Section 68, I decline to grant access to the records since they contain financial, commercial, scientific, and/or technical information, other than trade secrets, the disclosure of which is likely to cause harm to the commercial or financial interests of Telkom, and moreover contain information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to put Telkom at a disadvantage in contractual or other negotiations and/or prejudice Telkom in a commercial competition.

Even though we are invited to apply to court if we are “aggrieved by this decision” the terms of the refusal are so vague that we are unlikely to succeed via this route.  In the job application world, this would be called a PFO letter.

Just to be clear, we asked for a map of Telkom’s existing terrestrial fibre network, not even their plans for the future although that would be even better.  This is the kind of information that companies like Dark Fibre Africa and Liquid Telecom post freely on their websites.  In fact there are lots of African telecom companies that publicly post this information.  Evidently they think it is a good idea to communicate the reach of their networks.

But you know, publishing this information is not just a good idea for Telkom.  This is a good idea for South Africa.  If I have learned one thing from publishing a map of African Undersea Cables over the last 4 years, it is that it is possible to tell a different story about Africa, a connected 21st century Africa.  But right now that map still makes it look like all those cables stop at the beach.  There is an opportunity with this terrestrial fibre map for African countries to show off a little, to demonstrate that they are the best connected country on the continent, that they are THE destination when it comes to companies thinking about setting up African points of presence.

Surely, that is what the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of ICTs in Kenya must have been thinking when he replied to our request for information with a directive to his staff to gather and provide information on ALL terrestrial fibre optic cable projects in Kenya for use in the AfTerFibre map.

So this is where you come in Ms. Moholi.  As the comparatively new CEO of Telkom, this would be an easy way to demonstrate the new, more open face of Telkom by sharing that information and, in doing so, telling the world about Telkom, setting an example for other incumbents, and in general trumpeting South Africa’s extensive information infrastructure to the world.  What do you say?  There is a great South African story to tell here.

Posted by Steve Song

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