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Resolve fibre network deadlock to secure national benefits

By King'ori Choto | March 14th 2021
King'ori Choto, lawyer and policy analyst.

Kenya stands to lose heavily if the ongoing dispute on the National Optic Fibre Backbone Infrastructure (Nofbi) is not urgently resolved.

The tussle between the Ministry of ICT and the ICT Authority and Telkom Kenya was in Parliament recently when a report detailing the woes facing the critical infrastructure was tabled.   

It emerged that the ministry had not renewed a contract between it and Telkom on the operation and management of Nofbi that lapsed in 2016.

Meanwhile, Telkom had continued to operate and maintain the fibre network while incurring heavy losses.

As reported in the press recently, even after collecting revenue to the tune of Sh1.7 billion from running the network, Telkom accrued Sh2 billion in operation and maintenance costs, a net loss of Sh300 million. Since the contract expressly provides for a 50-50 revenue sharing arrangement, technically the ministry should also be shouldering part of the loss.

The inexplicable delay in regularising a contract governing such a vital national installation puts Telkom Kenya in a precarious financial position since withdrawing from the deal is not an option considering the serious ramifications this would have on the economy.

To my understanding, Telkom has even complemented the 4,300 kilometre Nofbi infrastructure with its own fibre line running 3,497 kilometres.

Standing issues

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The government should move with speed and iron out the outstanding issues to cushion Telkom - in which the taxpayer through the State has a 40 per cent stake - from losing more cash.

Importantly, Telkom has been creating value for the State as the latter uses the optic fibre infrastructure without paying a cent. As the company told legislators, the network would be profitable were the government to pay for the service.

To underline the economic significance of Nofbi, the government in 2018 injected Sh10 billion to connect all sub-counties to the network so as to enhance service delivery. The project, to be completed within five years, targeted government institutions, hospitals, schools and police stations.

In addition, Nofbi is critical to the implementation of the National Broadband Strategy (NBS) 2018-23 on transforming Kenya into a knowledge-based economy. This strategy requires certain critical interventions by the government, including facilitating wide access to Nofbi.

As a critical national infrastructure, Nofbi has several social and economic benefits. Among them are, first, that the network is crucial to bridging the digital divide. The NBS envisages 94 per cent broadband access in the country, increase in digital literacy in schools to 85 per cent and 50 per cent digital literacy among the workforce.

Second, Nofbi supports crucial government functions by providing access to high-speed broadband across the 47 counties. Access to affordable, reliable, secure and fast broadband connectivity is the first step in building robust government-to-citizen platforms. Counties rely on the Integrated Financial Management Information System powered by Nofbi.

Third, connecting hospitals to the fibre network will help accelerate the Universal Health Care agenda through innovative practices such as telemedicine and other e-health solutions meant to significantly improve healthcare especially in the rural areas.

There is urgent need to continuously invest in the fibre backbone as Kenya embraces emerging, fast-evolving technologies driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution such as the Internet of Things, Big Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence.

- The writer is a lawyer and policy analyst. Email: [email protected]     

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