It’s no secret that I am a fan of Google’s Project Link.  I’ve written about why I think it can play a critical role in breaking down the barriers of mistrust among operators and how Open Access fibre infrastructure is a critical enabling technology for increasing competition and lowering prices. Recently I had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about Project Link and wanted to share some new insights.

The biggest revelation for me is that the scope of Project Link is not limited to metropolitan fibre networks but potentially embraces shared infrastructure of all types. This means that a Project Link initiative could be about other kinds of communications infrastructure sharing ranging from towers to spectrum.

Let’s look at fibre first though. Project Link metro fibre networks are somewhat unique from other fibre networks in sub-Saharan Africa in that they have the following characteristics:

  • Flat rate pricing. Most fibre networks in sub-Saharan Africa charge either by distance or by capacity or both. Project Link charges a flat monthly fee for each drop point on their network. Discounts are offered on the basis of the number of drop points purchased by the customer. The advantage to the Project Link customer in this model is that they can plan for growth and embrace more ambitious strategies such as Video on Demand and triple play services in general.
  • High Quality of Service. Unlike many metropolitan fiber networks which operate a simple fibre ring, Project Link’s network design is a mesh topology where key hubs have at least three points of redundancy. This allows them to offer “four nines” or 99.99% uptime in their Service Level Agreement (SLA). This is huge difference to most metro fibre networks in Sub-Saharan Africa where service interruption is taken as a cost of doing business.
  • Neutrality. Project Link initiatives insist on being issued a “carrier of carriers” license from the telecommunications regulator. This license precludes them from offering retail services and provides credibility to their Open Access status.

It is worth pointing out that, unlike some other Google initiatives in Africa, there is no philanthropic aspect to Project Link.  All deployments are expected to be independently sustainable, profit-making businesses.  In the Project Link networks so far, in Kampala and Accra, a local company wholly owned by Google has been incorporated to build and operate the network.

Project Link offers both managed capacity and dark fibre. In the case of dark fibre, the customer ‘lights’ the fibre with their own terminating equipment. Many customers seem to prefer purchasing managed capacity as the “four nines” service level only applies to customers who purchase capacity.  Project Link being able to detect and respond to network faults. Dark fibre customers would have to report outages to Project Link themselves who would then initiative the repair process.

I had the opportunity to speak to one of Project Link’s customers in Kampala. They were very positive about Project Link and its impact on the market there and talked about how it had allowed the company to expand far more rapidly than they otherwise would have been able to.  The only drawback, from their perspective, was the one-size-fits-all offering from Project Link. The unlimited capacity offered at each drop point is a market disruptor but its pricing puts it outside of the range of something that could be used to service small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs).  They would have liked to have a Project Link offering that would address this market gap. This significantly weights the value of Project Link towards the larger operators, typically mobile network operators.  Small ISPs would need to make some very ambitious bets in order to really take advantage of Project Link.

It is hard to imagine what a lower-priced, lower-capacity fibre product might look like for them given their one-price strategy.  It would likely end up breaking the simplicity of their model.  Happily Google seem to have come up with an answer to this challenge as well.  Last week they launched a wholesale WiFi access network in Kampala.  This is the first step that Project Link has taken in to other kinds of shared communication infrastructure.  They have started with 120 WiFi access points in Kampala with plans to add more.  Any registered operator (MNO or ISP) can become a service provider on the network.

What would be even more exciting would be for operators to be able to create Point-to-Point links for their customers as opposed to just hotspot areas.  It is early days yet so who know what new services may emerge from Project Link.

Whatever the case, shared infrastructure and the separation of wholesale from retail services are likely to have a very positive impact on competition wherever it happens.   To be sure Project Link are not the only operator offering wholesale Open Access services.  Dark Fibre Africa was an early pioneer of this approach in South Africa.  What they both have in common is that they are non-telco entrants into the connectivity market which has the very positive effect of creating new dynamics and relationships in the market.

From an affordable access perspective, Google’s business aims are in sync with consumers to the extent that both want faster and cheaper access.  With the recent decision by Google’s founders to break out many of Google’s initiatives under the Alphabet umbrella, it will be worth watching to see whether a more independent Project Link shifts its emphasis at all from the current sweet spot of increasing access and driving down costs.

Project Link is a great step forward in shared communication infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa.  I look forward to seeing what they do next or perhaps who will be inspired by their model to take another leap forward in shared infrastructure.

Made possible in part through support from the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC)
Image courtesy Google

Posted by Steve Song

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