A student of the Faculty of Sciences at the Université Marien Ngouabi, Brazzaville, Marinette Moyo cannot imagine how she would be able to complete her studies without the internet. Like her classmates, whether she is in class or at home, she does not let go of her mobile phone or laptop. How could she do without online search engines to give a presentation or study for an exam?
It is the same for Gilles Massamba, a young, tech-savvy film promoter, and for numerous other Congolese nationals for whom the internet has become an indispensable social, administrative, and professional tool. The problem is that when the connection lags and is sporadic and expensive, you lose time, patience, and money. It is difficult to wait for 20 minutes to download a document or to be constantly disconnected during a Skype conversation with a relative living in the country’s interior.
High-speed internet through fiber optics
“For the majority of Congolese people, fiber optics remained an abstract notion,” Gilles says. “Until a ship sailing along the coast of Pointe-Noire accidentally severed the submarine fiber-optic cable. Then, everyone made the connection because no one had internet in Brazzaville anymore. It’s scary to think that it is all hanging by a thread, both literally and figuratively.”
In many ways, development of the digital economy and the achievement of regional integration in Central Africa are “hanging by a thread.” More specifically, they are hanging by the fiber optics that are in the process of being installed under the Central African Backbone (CAB) project, the first phase of which was completed on April 6, 2018 with the interconnection of the fiber-optic backbone between the Republic of Congo and the Republic of Gabon.
Becoming an interconnected region
Launched in April 2007 by the countries of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), during the summit in Ndjamena, Chad, the Central African Backbone (CAB) project aims to promote subregional integration and reduce the digital divide through high-speed, fiber-optic terrestrial infrastructure. The aim is to boost the capacity of the digital link among the 11 CEMAC countries.
“It is the culmination of a decade of ongoing efforts and the fulfillment of the strong ambition expressed by the leaders of the subregion to anchor the countries in the digital economy and thus promote regional integration,” explains Yvon-Didier Miehakanda, coordinator of the CAB project in the Republic of Congo.
The first phase of this project was launched in the Republic of Congo in July 2011 with $30 million in joint financing from the Government and the World Bank. The goal? Build a 521-kilometer fiber-optic backbone (reduced later to 504 kilometers) between the Matombi landing station (from the ocean city of Pointe-Noire) and the border landing station in Mbinda. The work was completed by the Chinese company Huawei, a global telecommunications leader, in collaboration with the Congo–Ocean Railway (CFCO), which facilitated installation of the fiber-optic cable along the railway.
The Congolese backbone continues up to the border city of Lekoko where it connects to the 1,100 km of the Gabonese terrestrial network, which runs up to Libreville.
This new interconnection infrastructure with Gabon gives the Republic of Congo a second fiber-optic connection point that will allow the country to ensure a relay connection in the event of a new breakdown of its submarine cable, which was commissioned in 2012, or of the Matombi connection point in Kouilou.
The first phase of the recently completed CAB project gives way to the second phase, which involves the construction of two new fiber-optic networks in the north of the country in order to connect the Congolese network to the Cameroonian and Central African networks by 2020. Cofinanced by the African Development Bank and the Congolese Government to the tune of 66.56 million euros, this second phase includes, among other activities, the construction of a national “Datacenter” to host data and a technology hub to develop new technologies and the digital economy.
Finally, the third phase of the project, financed exclusively by the World Bank for $5 million, is expected to create a digital economy development fund aimed at financing the development of start-ups and job creation in this sector.
Faster, cheaper internet service
“If this new infrastructure effectively helps enhance internet service in the country, the logical consequence should be the lowering of connection costs for users,” states Aymar Kodia, a young, seasoned internet user. “And that is good news, because the current rates charged by both public and private operators are simply exorbitant (1 Mb costs CFAF 65,000 or $122!).”
On the heels of installing the fiber-optic network, the CAB project also equipped the public university with software tools and interconnected the 11 higher education establishments in Brazzaville. The students are now waiting for the national telecommunications operator, Congo-Telecom, to activate high-speed internet so as to fully benefit from the new technological environment available to them. “I can already see myself having access to unlimited documentary resources, downloading huge files freely, doing research or taking online courses like students in developed countries. That would be really great!” says Marinette.
“Studies conducted in Africa, particularly by the World Bank in 2010, prove that a 10% increase in the number of high-speed internet connections leads, among other things, to an increase in economic growth of 1.3%,” explains Jérôme Bezzina, World Bank task team leader and telecommunications specialist. “In the Republic of Congo, it is estimated that the ICT sector represents 4% of GDP. With better infrastructure, its contribution is expected to be even greater, especially in the services sector where it already figures prominently.”
Digital tracking of environmental risks offers insights to humanitarian actors
By the end of this day many people will have made life-changing decisions, relying on their best guess or their instinct. Some will yield great results while others will imperil individuals, corporations and communities.
Humanitarian crises require that we make difficult choices. As they increasingly become complex, as are their impact on the environment, the choices we make must be the right ones. And to make sound, informed decisions, we need data.
Thankfully today, all those who work in the environmental field have at their fingertips a combination of global environmental data, technologies and data science tools and techniques. These have the potential to create insights that can underpin a sustainable future and profoundly transform our relationship with our planet.
For decades, the UN Environment Programme has been working with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and partners such as the UN Refugee Agency, to make sense of environmental data for improved humanitarian planning.
In December last year, UN Environment with support from the UN Refugee Agency piloted an innovative tool for environmental data gathering and risk assessment, the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+). The tool was deployed in the Mantapala refugee settlement in northern Zambia.
Built around existing farmland, Mantapala refugee settlement, near Nchelenge in northern Zambia, was built in 2018 for up to 20,000 people. It was designed to enable refugees to make a living while contributing to local development. The surrounding humid sub-tropical Mantapala Forest Reserve—an area characterized by rich biodiversity—includes the productive Wet Miombo Woodland.
According to the UN Refugee agency, Zambia hosts at least 41,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mantapala refugee settlement is home to around 13,000 of them.
Daily life isn’t easy. Flash floods can be common during the long rainy seasons when rainfalls are particularly heavy. In addition, less than 20 per cent of Nchelenge district’s households have access to electricity, and even when they do, it is so expensive that people prefer to use firewood and charcoal as their primary cooking fuels.
“With pressure mounting on natural resources throughout the world, we are exploring how to support humanitarian actors in collecting, sharing and processing environmental data for better decision-making using innovative digital environmental tools such as the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+) and MapX—a United Nations-backed platform—in Mantapala settlement and beyond,” says David Jensen, UN Environment’s Head of Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding and Co-Director of MapX.
What makes NEAT+ so appealing is its simplicity. It is a user-friendly environmental screening tool for humanitarian contexts, which combines environmental data with site-specific questions to automatically analyse and flag priority environmental risks. The tool was developed by eight humanitarian and environmental organizations as part of the Joint Initiative, a multi-stakeholder project aimed at improving collaboration between environmental and humanitarian actors. NEAT+ supports humanitarian actors in quickly identifying issues of concern to increase the efficiency, accountability and sustainability of emergency or recovery interventions.
“NEAT+ answers the demand of a simple process to assess the sensitivity of the environment in displacement settings. It overlays environmental realities with a proposed humanitarian intervention, identifying risk and mitigation measures,” says Emilia Wahlstrom, Programme Officer, UN Environment / Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joint Unit.
NEAT+ runs on KoBo—a free, open source data collection platform—built by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative—that allows data to be collected through phone, tablet or computer. Once the data is recorded, the programme automatically generates a report in Excel, categorizing risk into high, medium and low, and providing information that can help mitigate the risk.
As a next step, NEAT+ will draw increasingly on MapX, an online, open-source, fully-customizable platform for accessing and visualizing geospatial environmental data. It offers various tools to highlight different environmental risks such as deforestation, natural hazards and flood risks. NEAT will use MapX to gather and vizualise data.
In the Mantapala settlement, the NEAT+ assessment tool was used to identify negative environmental and livelihoods impacts in the settlement, where MapX spatial data highlighted nearby areas of environmental concern.
The results showed opportunities for environmental action. Where there was risk of deforestation, alternative livelihoods and agroforestry programmes could be supported. Agricultural plots vulnerable to flood damage are undergoing modification to prevent further deforestation and to reduce flood risks.
“Developing a digital ecosystem for the environment offers the possibility to access the best available data for decision-making. Tools such as MapX and NEAT+ are critical in mitigating the effects of sudden-onset natural disasters and slow-onset environmental change and degradation,” says Jensen.
“Developing and applying the NEAT+ tool has showed us the added value the environmental community can bring to the frontlines of humanitarian response. By taking the time to understand the environmental context they operate in, humanitarian actors are designing programmes that are saving money, contributing to a healthy environment, and supporting the dignity, livelihoods and health of affected people. This is critical for an increasingly complex and protracted global humanitarian crisis panorama,” comments Wahlstrom.
In 2019, the same actors who developed the NEAT+ tool, the Joint Initiative partners, launched the Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect website. Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect is a unique digital tool spanning the humanitarian-environment nexus and represents the first comprehensive online repository of environmental and humanitarian action tools and guidance. It is easily searchable and readily accessible, whether at the office, at home, or in the field. The content aligns with the humanitarian programme cycle with specific guidance available for humanitarian clusters and themes.
Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect is administered and updated by the United Nations Environment / Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joint Unit. Through the Joint Unit, UN Environment and OCHA respond as one to the environmental dimensions of emergencies. The partnership assists countries affected by disasters and crises and works to enhance the sustainability of humanitarian action. The partnership has supported almost 100 countries and conducted over 200 missions, and celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
China’s Experience with High Speed Rail Offers Lessons for Other Countries
China has put into operation over 25,000 kilometers of dedicated high-speed railway (HSR) lines since 2008, far more than the total high-speed lines operating in the rest of the world. What type of planning, business models, and approaches to construction enabled this rapid growth? In an era when many railways face declining ridership, what pricing and services make high-speed rail attractive to this large number of passengers and maintain financial and economic viability? A new World Bank study seeks to answer these and other questions.
“China has built the largest high-speed rail network in the world. The impacts go well beyond the railway sector and include changed patterns of urban development, increases in tourism, and promotion of regional economic growth. Large numbers of people are now able to travel more easily and reliably than ever before, and the network has laid the groundwork for future reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” said Martin Raiser, World Bank Country Director for China.
The World Bank has financed some 2,600 km of high-speed rail in China to date. Building on analysis and experience gained through this work and relevant Chinese studies, China’s High-Speed Rail Development summarizes key lessons and practices for other countries that may be considering high-speed rail investments.
A key enabling factor identified by the study is the development of a comprehensive long-term plan to provide a clear framework for the development of the system. China’s Medium- and Long-Term Railway Plan looks up to 15 years ahead and is complemented by a series of Five-Year Plans.
In China, high-speed rail service is competitive with road and air transport for distances of up to about 1200 km. Fares are competitive with bus and airfares and are about one-fourth the base fares in other countries. This has allowed high-speed rail to attract more than 1.7 billion passengers a year from all income groups. Countries with smaller populations will need to choose routes carefully and balance the wider economic and social benefits of improved connectivity against financial viability concerns.
A key factor keeping costs down is the standardization of designs and procedures. The construction cost of the Chinese high-speed rail network, at an average of $17 million to $21 million per km, is about two-thirds of the cost in other countries.
The study also looks into the economic benefits of HSR services. The rate of return of China’s network as of 2015 is estimated at 8 percent, well above the opportunity cost of capital in China and most other countries for major long-term infrastructure investments. Benefits include shortened travel times, improved safety and facilitation of labor mobility, and tourism. High-speed networks also reduce operating costs, accidents, highway congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions as some air and auto travelers switch to rail.
This report is the first of a series of five studies of transport in China—high-speed rail, highways, urban transport, ports, and inland waterways—produced by TransFORM, a knowledge platform developed by the World Bank and China’s Ministry of Transport to share Chinese and international transport experiences and facilitate learning in China and other countries.
Net Neutrality, EU final call on Internet governance?
It is possible to celebrate the ability of European models of pluralism protection to adapt to the new challenges posed by technological progress. The European Union has in particular issued a favorable framework for innovation by liberalizing the telecommunications market. In addition, it has also reaffirmed its conception of the digital world thanks to numerous regulations regarding the responsibility of the contents diffused, cybersecurity, taxation, competition or in the field of the culture with the recent directive on copyrights. There is therefore obvious convergence between the infrastructure and their contents, but these two regulatory bodies still have specific missions within the European Union. The 2009 European Regulation created the European Electronic Regulators Body (BEREC) to better formalize the joint actions of independent regulators and relations with the European institutions.
However, it remains that in terms of digital, US hegemony is undeniable. All the more so, that one can observe a powerful economic competition between the United States and China to determine who will have the monopoly in the digital sphere. The debate leading to questioning an end on net neutrality is largely influenced by an American regulation of the digital, which is at the antipodes of a European strategy. Net neutrality was actually installed by the Federal Communications Commission under President Barack Obama, but have been abandoned under the administration of President Donald Trump. Net neutrality is a founding principle of the Internet, which ensures that telecom operators do not discriminate against the communications of their users, but remain mere transmitters of information. The legal framework of net neutrality in the European Union (EU) is laid down by Article 3 of EU Regulation 2015/2120. This principle allows all users, regardless of their resources, to access the same network as a whole. Thus, this regulation guarantees the possibility for all users to communicate freely through the exercise of effective and fair competition between network operators and telecommunications service providers.
The arrival of Netflix, the subscription video-on-demand service, has polarized the essentially positive view of net neutrality in the EU. Thus, Olivier Schrameck, the president of the CSA pronounced in his speech of July 3, 2014 during the 11th days of the association of the promotion of the audio-visual (APA) that one “must finish with the absolutist conception of the net neutrality “. Indeed, the service is a broad bandwidth consumer in the evening without contributing financially in return. The hyper-demand for bandwidth pushed up the costs of network infrastructure. Proponents of an end to neutrality believes that it primarily benefits actors like Google or Facebook who already have a favorable tax regime. Consequently, strengthening the power of large players in the digital field. By ending net neutrality providers would then be able to slow down data traffic from certain website and give priorities to others by charging differently depending on the content. It seems legitimate to wonder if the EU should then follow the path of Donald Trump’s administration by changing the rules of the Internet. However, net neutrality seems like a fundamental instrument for the protection of the EU fundamental rights on the Internet such as the freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information. Adding political objectives to a debate, which seems dominated by the will to maintain an economic modelling of pricing in two-sided markets.
If net neutrality is fundamental in order to preserve the European model of pluralism of information and consumer protection, how can it be maintained in the digital age? I personally believe net neutrality should be thought in terms of how to conceptualise its regulation rather than imagining its end. For instance, a prescriptive ex-ante regulation could undermine innovation. The flexibility of European competition law allows for the treatment of a wide variety of sectors, such as responding to digital challenges. It would be dangerous to move away from it. Today, the way in which the internet works rests on a biased competition. There is therefore a major dysfunction of the digital market, which poses a very important risk to our economy. Competition law should be rethought in order to create new competitors, as the previous regulations of Telecoms did by creating a favourable environment for actors concurrencing a monopoly. The actual regulation allows national judicial different interpretations on net neutrality which lead to different implementations as data traffic is treated according to national jurisdictions interpretation.
Although useful, the competition itself is not enough to regulate the digital. Digital platforms, for example, do not necessarily have an interest in ensuring diversity and sufficient quality of their content. In terms of digital regulation, Member states can not act alone, since the intrinsic nature of digital technology establishes a world-class territory. If the prospect of a global regulation of the digital remains distant, it is possible to solidify a regulation on a European scale. Especially since the GDPR establishes a network regulation, with the obligation of cooperation between the different regulatory bodies across Europe. Europe therefore has the tools to combine regulation and innovation, but they remain difficulties in its implementation, including the lack of common decision-making between member states resulting from a true “balkanisation of the web”. The GAFA’s taxation policy also illustrates the presence of disparate opinions that hold back the prospect of a Europe acting as a unified actor in the digital domain.
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