EFFORTS to position Djibouti as a telecoms gateway for East Africa are yielding fruit, following the recent landing of a consortia-owned, intercontinental submarine cable and the planned arrival of a second cable later this year.
In early March state-owned Djibouti Telecom announced that it had completed connections to one of the two fibre-optic cable systems – the 20,000-km South-East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe (SEA-ME-WE) 5 – in Haramous.
The cable has a capacity of 24 Tbps and is owned by 15 leading telecoms operators, including China Mobile International, France’s Orange, Dubai-based du and Saudi Telecom.
The country’s efforts to carve out a niche as a regional telecommunications gateway represent the latest chapter in Djibouti’s bid to capitalise on its location between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea and, more recently, to increase bandwidth.
Djibouti currently has two landing facilities, servicing five other submarine cables linking Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe – namely, the EASSy, EIG, SEA-ME-W 3, Djibouti-Aden and Seacom cables.
These interconnections, along with ongoing capital investment, have enabled Djibouti Telecom to expand its operations in recent years.
In the 18 months to July 2015 the company invested more than $100 million in regional infrastructure to bolster voice, data/IP and capacity services to telecoms companies and major government and private sector clients.
Djibouti Telecom’s capacity is poised to increase further when the 25,000-km Asia-Africa-Europe 1 (AAE-1) cable, stretching from South-east Asia to Europe through Djibouti, comes online later this year. As of March, work on the cable was roughly 70 percent complete, according to industry press.
‘Some 25 out of 41 African operators are now connected to Djibouti’s submarine cable system,’ Mohamed Assoweh Bouh, director-general of Djibouti Telecom, told Oxford Business Group (OBG). ‘In terms of internet data leaving the region, there is currently 700 GB, from which we are taking 10-20 percent, and we would like to see that figure triple.’
Smaller local companies, meanwhile, are also working with Djibouti Telecom to boost domestic and regional broadband services.
Djibouti Data Centre (DDC) recently inked a deal with ChineseNetCentre, a cloud platform provider, to build a content delivery network node that will boost end-user access.
Created in 2013 in partnership with Djibouti Telecom, DDC is the first data centre and internet exchange in East Africa connected to the fibre-optic cables running from Europe to Asia.
The DDC was founded to provide direct fibre access, interconnection and co-location at a common cable landing station, thereby bundling all data in one place, from which the connection can be re-connected or backhaul services provided.
It was constructed with the aim of centralising incoming data connections in one location for re-transmission to Africa, Asia and Europe. Currently 25 African telecoms providers are connected to the DDC, ranging from countries like Burundi to Madagascar, with connection speeds presently at around 30 Gbps.
Djibouti’s domestic market remains characterised by modest mobile internet use in comparison to other major continental markets, though fixed internet uptake has recorded significant growth in recent years.
Figures from the World Bank suggest that only 32 of every 100 inhabitants had a mobile phone subscription in 2014, compared to 150 subscriptions for every 100 people in South Africa.
While internet access often relies heavily on mobile devices in most emerging markets – in Kenya, for example, mobile data accounts for more than 90 percent of all internet subscriptions – Djibouti trends in the opposite direction.
As of the end of last year, there were close to 33,000 internet subscribers, with the vast majority – around 24,000 – accessing it through fixed ADSL connections, and the remainder via 3G dongles and mobile devices.
Growth has been relatively steady, increasing by nearly 4000 year-on-year, with virtually all of that growth found within the ADSL segment. As a share of the population Djibouti’s internet penetration now outranks both Ethiopia and Somalia.
Reducing the cost of internet services would go a long way towards boosting future uptake. At least 40 percent of the country would need to spend close to their entire salary to afford fixed broadband services, the World Bank reported, and mobile broadband is still out of reach for many Djiboutians.
The fact that Djibouti serves as a meeting point for a growing number of international subsea cable systems provides significant scope for the country to expand its share of regional telecoms and data traffic, while also offering the potential to improve domestic connectivity and access through faster broadband service and higher penetration. The high rate of urbanisation –at more than 75% – should facilitate this trend in the years ahead.