Utility Companies and Fiber Sharing in Morocco and Algeria

Fiber optic cables do not just benefit telecom companies and Internet users – the technology also modernizes the infrastructure of utility companies. In Northern Africa in particular, railroad, highway, oil, and electricity companies have benefited commercially and otherwise from fiber. For example, in emergency situations, such as a train crash or an oil spill, up-to-date communication systems can be a matter of survival when every minute counts. Fiber enhances the speed of internal communication systems and benefits both utility companies and the general population. Often times, due to the relative low marginal cost of adding extra fiber pairs, these alternative fiber networks are built with some excess capacity whether it is for future expected demand, or with the intention of the resale of this capacity to the telecommunications sector (as policy permits). When these companies share their fiber, it is mutually beneficial to the long-term strategic growth of utility companies and it strengthens the national ICT infrastructure; however, the regulatory environment of a country dramatically affects this cooperation. This is particularly interesting in the case of the transport and energy sectors’ fiber infrastructure in Morocco and Algeria, as we will see.

Transportation technologies and fiber optics may seem like very different components of a country’s infrastructure, but they are closely related. In both Morocco and Algeria, railroad companies have deployed fiber along their networks for improved internal communication and safety. For example, Moroccan railroad company ONCF and private telecom operator Meditel have signed a long-term fiber sharing agreement that benefits both parties — ONCF has a high-speed communication system and Meditel expanded its coverage without building new infrastructure. Algerian railway company SNTF has recently begun to deploy fiber adjacent to rail ties for internal use, but this network could eventually connect with Moroccan rail company ONCF and Tunisian rail company SNCFT, which could boost international bandwidth speeds.[1]

These screenshots from HIP Consult’s mapping and analytics platform InfraNav™  visualize fiber optic infrastructure along only roads (left) and along roads as well as utility infrastructure (right), which shows the potential for expanding a country’s ICT infrastructure using alternative fiber networks.

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Similarly, highway companies have also used fiber to their advantage, both to enhance their internal communication networks and to improve public safety. The Morocco Highway Administration, in partnership with private infrastructure builder Finetis Maroc, leases fiber to private telecom operators Meditel and INWI.[2] Reliable traffic lights and signals, emergency communication, and other important components of highway systems can be upgraded through fiber optic infrastructure.[3] The expansion of Meditel and INWI’s fiber optic networks also enhances Morocco’s ICT infrastructure and fosters competition between providers. Since Meditel and INWI lease this passive infrastructure network rather than build their own, construction and maintenance costs are much lower than they would otherwise be. Meditel and INWI have been able to expand their networks throughout the entire country, not just in major coastal cities.

In the oil and gas industry, companies use fiber to maintain pipelines, as well as for internal communication. While Morocco’s pipelines do not appear to have fiber installed, Algerian energy companies Sonatrach and Sonelgaz have deployed over 20,000 combined kilometers of fiber along their pipelines.[4] Parts of Sonatrach’s network are equipped with a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system, which helps monitor the pipeline and detect leaks.[5] This network has the potential to connect Algeria’s fiber infrastructure with neighboring countries and improve bandwidth speeds. However, incumbent operator Algeria Telecom held a monopoly until very recently—in 2013 the Company of Telecommunications Infrastructure Algeria (CITA) was established to regulate the country’s fiber infrastructure. The development of partnerships between Algerian energy companies and telecom operators and the results of this CITA’s efforts in the next several years will be interesting to observe.

The national power grid also frequently provides passive fiber infrastructure. Fiber optic cables allow communication along distribution power lines, as well as leasing to telecom operators to expand the country’s fiber network and increase bandwidth, if the regulatory environment permits it. Morocco’s Office National de l’Electricité et de l’Eau Potable (ONEE), for example, leases fiber to two private operators. However, since many of these high voltage networks run straight through less densely populated places to reach isolated electricity generation plants, they are less likely to reach metropolitan areas. In order for fiber to extend to cities, schools, and hospitals, telcos must build spurs off of these high-voltage routes. While this is certainly possible with some extra planning, it does not always occur. There is a potential supply of thousands of miles of fiber along power lines if electricity companies work with regulators to sell excess fiber capacity to telecom providers.

As we have seen, fiber installed along utility infrastructure is widespread, but the extent to which it expands a country’s ICT infrastructure varies due to different regulatory environments. For example, state-run incumbent operator Algeria Telecom had a monopoly on fiber infrastructure that prevented utility companies from leasing fiber to a private operator. The creation of the regulatory organization CITA in 2013 is predicted to expand Algeria’s extensive fiber optic network along utility networks, but only if its regulations prove to be effective within the local market. While restrictions to fiber sharing also exist in Morocco, sharing agreements using alternative fiber infrastructure have been permitted, improving the country’s overall ICT infrastructure. Morocco has one of the most advanced ICT infrastructures in Africa, ranking in the continent’s top 10 counties with the highest download speeds.[6]

To navigate the complexities of passive infrastructure on the continent, HIP Consult’s powerful new tool InfraNav visualizes the diversity of fiber optic networks by operators and utilities. The screenshots from InfraNav at the beginning of the blog post compare fiber exclusively along roads and total fiber including utility company fiber infrastructure. InfraNav users can selectively view fiber along each type of infrastructure, as well as calculate distance and population within a given distance radius. Telecom operators who purchase fiber optic capacity from utility companies utilize a cost-effective and reliable option to expand access to telecommunication services using existing infrastructure, and InfraNav offers cutting-edge visuals and analytical tools to aggregate this information on an intuitive and comprehensive interface.

[1] Gelvanovska, Natalija, Michel Rogy, and Carlo Maria Rossotto. Broadband Networks in the Middle East and North Africa: Accelerating High-Speed Internet Access. World Bank Publications, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sparse research regarding improvements in traffic safety following fiber installation has been conducted; potential for improved traffic and road condition monitoring exists but results of implementation are uncertain.

[4] Gelvanovska, Natalija, Michel Rogy, and Carlo Maria Rossotto. Broadband Networks in the Middle East and North Africa: Accelerating High-Speed Internet Access. World Bank Publications, 2014.

[5] Eurnaftogas; Prizma Group Automation, “Innovative Automation & SCADA Systems Solutions, ” 25 November 2014, http://eurpetrol.com/solutions.pdf.

[6] Fripp, Charles. “Africa’s Top Ten Countries with Fastest Internet Speeds,” IT News Africa, 25 April 2014, http://www.itnewsafrica.com/2012/04/africas-top-ten-countries-with-fastest-internet-speeds/.

The Making of a Healthy Backbone: Malawi and e-health

Information and communication technology has become a first order necessity, just behind access to water, electricity, and sanitation. Therefore it is no surprise that governments across Africa are undertaking ambitious infrastructure projects known as backbones, the industry terminology for the layout of long-haul optical fiber at the national level. These backbones are built with the future in mind, designed to consider current and future demand for bandwidth, and planned for anticipated economic growth.

Yet the question may be: why invest in ICT in Africa when other critical services need to prioritized, such as healthcare? On average Africa has only 52.6 physicians per 100,000 inhabitants compared to 300 physicians for OECD countries1, and nearly 40% of the continental population is urbanized2. There is a service gap between densely populated centers, where infrastructures tend to be concentrated, and the needs of the greater rural population. ICT can, however, bridge some of the geographic inequity in the distribution of basic services. For instance, one country has had success with an experimental program at the intersection of ICT and health: Malawi.

Malawi is a country with very limited resources in the realm of healthcare, with high rates of tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS affecting its population. And yet over the past decade Malawi has led the way in the implementation of e-health services, through the Electronic Medical Record System (EMRS), a comprehensive health database of individual patients’ records accessible to hospital clerks and clinicians across the country. The successes of the program are multiple: health workers devote less time on administration and spend more time on patients, hospitals administrators can forecast demand in supplies with real time patient data, and policy makers can readily use the database to monitor changes in public health and to appeal to international donors.

Malawi’s e-health initiative predates its backbone, having relied mostly on wireless satellite connectivity, which can be slower and less reliable than fiber. However, the development of a fiber backbone along power lines and roads has been a game-changer. The construction of the national backbone began in 2008, and since then, the telecom sector’s contribution to GDP has increased from 3.5% to 4.5% and the number of internet subscribers has more than tripled3.

Fiber backbones have enabled the growth of telemedicine, or remote healthcare services. It cannot replace the need for hospital beds and medical staff; nor is fiber a prerequisite for the implementation of e-health programs. However, an anticipated benefit of a newly implemented backbone is the expansion of reliable and affordable channels of communication, which can drive further investments into more ambitious and lasting e-health programs. The Malawian government is offering incentives for mobile operators to service rural areas, and supporting this with continued expansion of the national backbone. These developments continue to drive e-health initiatives and the quality of healthcare available in the country, while providing an interesting model for countries facing structural challenges similar to Malawi’s.

Population Density and the Backbone4

In an attempt to identify areas potentially isolated from access to broadband internet, the map below presents the proximity of hospitals to fiber in Malawi within 1km, 5km, and beyond.

Hospitals and Proximity to the Backbone

Description: In green are hospital within 1 km of fiber, in yellow those within 5 km, and in red those beyond 5 km (the furthest hospital being nearly 70 km away from fiber)5

There is a visible concentration of hospitals southeast of Blantyre beyond 5km of the backbone, in an area that is non-negligible in population. However not all hospitals have taken part in the EMRS program (for a comprehensive list, visit the Baobab Health Trust website), and those far from fiber may be relying on wireless networks. Furthermore it may be equally erroneous to assume that all hospitals near fiber have necessarily been connected.

For these reasons, regulators and responsible agencies need to maintain updated records of fiber routes and public infrastructures connected to fiber in order to identify both inadequacies in services and opportunities for investments. InfraNav™, through its comprehensive and accessible database on the state of fiber in Africa, provides the information and tools to assist ICT professionals and infrastructure planners. A healthy backbone is one which provides for core services, from health to education, efficiently and reliably.

Please contact us at maps@hipconsult.com to request additional information, ask questions or express interest in our data and InfraNav™.