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Rwanda Conference Highlights Potential for African Communications Bonanza

A telecommunications conference in Rwanda’s capital Kigali has laid the groundwork for the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in innovative ways to connect people in neighboring countries and facilitate exchanges across the entire continent and the outside world. Rwanda’s Minister of State for Communications and Energy Albert Butare says that the two-day summit last week attracted a high turnout of heads of state and representatives from some of the world’s leading information technology companies.

“The meeting was attended strongly by the key stakeholders in the game. We had representatives, presidents, and CEO’s of huge companies from Silicon Valley, like Microsoft and Cisco, and other parts of the world. We had six heads of state from Africa, three ministers heading communications from Africa and abroad. There were World Bank, African Development Bank, European Commission, and other bi-laterals. So the summit brought all key people that can make everything happen,” he said.

It is estimated that over the next five years, all the major cities on the African continent will be connected by high-quality fiber-optic voice and media communications or equivalent wire technology. Minister Butare says the lines will allow Rwanda to conduct highly sophisticated communications and transactions.

“We agreed on having a number of applications before 2015. You know, telemedicine, electronic education, video conferencing that arranges physical meetings and e-commerce and agriculture,” he notes.

Rwanda’s Communications Minister dismisses the notion that making these high-speed, high-bandwidth tools available to his country and its neighbors will raise Africa’s dependence on European, Asian, and North American providers, who control and distribute the backbone of such delivery systems.

“Apparently, I think, that’s misinformation because already, we are putting in optic fiber to connect our capitals. It’s already happening. The problem we have is connecting Kigali to Kinshasa and Kinshasa connected to Burundi and then Kinshasa connected to Brazzaville. This is something that is very doable. And another thing is we are still being brought down by connecting with the rest of the world. We are still dependent on satellite connectivity, which is expensive. But as you may well know, there are a number of initiatives going on on the submarine cable on the Indian Ocean that’s going to connect countries not only along the east coast (of Africa), but also land-locked countries like ours. And this must happen before 2010. I imagine it will be in the interest of everybody not to remain behind, with those communications now a basic necessity. And it needs to happen now, and at least cost,” he says.

With concessions of ownership of cell phone providers at a premium, and with political leadership in many developing countries having access to obtain those concessions, Butare believes the only checks and balances to limit corruption lies in the growing diversity of a highly competitive market. He admits that controlling the power to regulate rates for access to communications is a political necessity, but says that the wide opportunities open to users will make it worthwhile to abide by pricing guidelines.

“This is a competitive world, and you can’t have a difficult fear when your neighbor is enjoying better tariffs. So regulation is something that must go on to protect users, but also to make sure that we encourage that there will come other investors. Currently, for instance in Africa, we are enjoying the same networks. We are using the same tariffs, the same networks, and it makes life easier. These are lessons behind any monopolistic kind of approach,” Butare notes.