KINSHASA - Africa's Internet users had something to celebrate this month. A total of 13 West African countries have just hooked up to a new underwater fiber optic cable running from Cape Town to London, bringing them better phone connections and a new high speed Internet link. But one country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), missed the boat bringing the cable ashore.
Officially, the Democratic Republic Congo is about four months behind schedule to connect to the West African Cable System (WACS). This is not the first time the DRC has missed out on a high speed Internet link.
As Internet user Didier Bobange tries to download a document at his local cybercafé in Kinshasa, he has plenty of time to reflect on his country's position in the cyberspace race.
"So we don't know how long we wait for it to come…you know. I was in Benin Republic 10 years ago and the connection [there] was far better than we have here today in Kinshasa," recalled Bobange.
High speed Internet would be a blessing for Congo's businesses, researchers and even doctors who could make long distance diagnoses. It's past time they had it, says Laurent Ntumba, founder of the local Internet service provider Microcom.
"There are many [fiber optic] cables in Africa. There are maybe seven or eight, and we're not connected. It's unacceptable," said Ntumba.
In fact, he says, a fiber optic link between Muanda on the DRC's Atlantic coast and Kinshasa could have been switched on years ago.
"The cable from Muanda to Kinshasa [has] already [been installed] underground three years now - we can use it," added Ntumba.
But they cannot connect to the international line until the government has given permission, paid its dues to the cable consortium and builds a landing station at the coast. And, that is taking some time. It was a similar story in other countries, but the Congo has taken the longest time.
The immediate reason why the Congo is not linked to WACS is that the cable landing station was not built to the right standards. Local media report that the company contracted to build it had never done this kind of job before.
They also report that $3 million of government funds for the contract went missing last year and the former director-general of the national telecoms company, SCPT, was charged with high treason and jailed for three months in connection with the affair.
The scandal came to light after SCPT employees protested plans to create a private company, Congo Cable, to manage fiber optic connections.
Jean Paul Kamalata, a union representative for the telecoms sector, says this is unacceptable to cut out SCPT employees from the future revenues when they are already owed years in back pay. He also told said that the union has other valid concerns.
Kamalata says he campaigned against the plan to create Congo Cable because he believes international telecom links are vital to a country's security and you cannot entrust a country's security to a private company.
The government seems to have dropped the idea of creating a new company to manage the cable.
Microcom's Ntumba thinks it was not a bad idea in principle. He says the SCPT will need competent private sector partners to install and maintain the fiber optic network.
"Managing the cable is not something easy. You need to have the knowledge, you need all the support, and I don't know if the SCPT has this level of competence," Ntumba explained.
Ntumba is also doubtful about the government's plan for the next stage, which is to lay 2,000 kilometers of cable from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi in the southeast corner of the country. He suggests it would be quicker and cheaper to connect Lubumbashi to Zambia's fiber optic cable, and other eastern cities to cables from Rwanda and Uganda. The money saved could be spent on laying connections within big cities.
But many Congolese would oppose the idea of connecting eastern cities via Rwanda, a country that was at war with the DRC from 1998 to 2003.
The current director general of the SCPT, Placide Mbatika, said that deals have already been signed with Ex-Im Bank China and a Chinese contractor to lay the 2,000 kilometer cable, although there will still be a need for investors for subsequent phases.
Mbatika says the country is open to all investors for the fiber optic program. He says that thanks to President Joseph Kabila's intervention, SCPT now has political backing, competent management and a committed workforce. He predicts that the first phase of the project, landing the cable and connecting it to Kinshasa, will be finished by the end of August.
Local media say that any further delays could jeopardize the Congo's chances of hosting the next summit of French speaking countries, scheduled to be held in Kinshasa in October.