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Monday, May 21, 2012

NITA-Uganda to hire firm to manage the national fibre optic cable


By Esther Nakkazi
Uganda is in the final stages of contracting a firm to manage the National data transmission and e-government infrastructure project after a forensic technical audit by the Kenya based East Africa Telecoms Infrastructure Limited.

The National Information Technology Authority-Uganda (NITA-U), which is in charge of the project said the contracted firm will manage and maintain the fibre optic cable infrastructure on behalf of government after a verification drive for userbility is completed.

According to Charlotte Ampaire, the spokesperson of NITA-U, the procurement process will be complete by June this year. But stakeholders say NITA-U could be presenting limping infrastructure to a commercial manager, which NITA-U has refuted vehemently.

The government conceived the NBI/EGI project to facilitate e-Governance and to extend connectivity to submarine cables at the border with Kenya as well as provide access to cheap Internet across the entire country to spur job creation.

NITA-U has carried out verification to ensure that all defects have been addressed and a report to that effect has been submitted to our management to review and approve the works before closure of the forensic technical audit said Ampaire.

A Chinese leading global information and communications technology (ICT) solutions provider, Huawei, was contracted by the Uganda government five years ago to lay a fibre optic cable in a $106 million NBI/EGI project to areas that were not seen as commercial for the private sector.

However, the work done by the Chinese firm was found to be substandard prompting a forensic technical audit in 2010, which found mishaps like the cable depth was too shallow at 0.9m instead of 1.2m exposing it to vandalism and accidental damage caused by road contractors to plus it had no thunder lines and some of it was suspended through septic tanks without protection.

“Huawei acknowledged these mishaps and committed to fixing them at their own cost,” said Edward Baliddawa, a member of Parliament on the ICT committee of Uganda parliament.

The audit also found that the cable posed cyber insecurity, as almost all routers did not have console password protection, meaning anyone could login into the router and access information.

And the network design was also found to be faulty at some sites with a couple of spur sites, meaning they have no self healing when damage is inflicted which increases downtimes as a result of fiber cuts or card failures.

The forensic audit team carried out random spot checks of the fibre and preferential checks to features such as bridges, manholes, drainages and road crossings.

The audit was meant to ensure that all installations, equipment and construction carried out by Huawei, was in conformity to the agreed designs, whether there was value for money and to identity the impact of the project on the environment.

Fortunately, the team did not observe any significant impacts that the installation of the cable made on the environment and no major pollution was witnessed and recorded, says the report.

NITA-U officials acknowledge that most of the issues found by the audit was with the quality of the outside plant works. But from the forensic audit “the general conclusion is that the cable was laid as per contractual design and specifications, the equipment was installed and is in good condition,” said Ampaire.

While stakeholders say with poor supervision to the contractor, the badly laid fibre optic cable is now limping suffering multiple cuts everyday by ignorant, mistaken and malicious locals and from uncoordinated activities with the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) repairing roads.

“One of the most outstanding observation we made out of this excise is that in the 1st phase of the NBI, there was no independent supervisor. The Ministry of ICT depended on what the contractor told them and this was very unfortunate,” said Baliddawa.

Some firms that were sub-contracted by Huawei to work on the project are also unhappy that they have never been paid by the Chinese, which has reduced their operations due to limited capital while others closed shop altogether complaining about delay in payment.

Our operations have stalled, suppliers are not forth coming and interest is amassing in the bank because Huawei has failed to us, said one of the subcontractors.

“We have been repairing this cable over and over again. We did our part but Huawei says if they do not get their Provisional Acceptance Certificate (PAC) from the government, they cannot pay us but this is unfair,” said another sub-contractor.
Another sub-contractor said they are suffering due to government’s inefficiency, which failed to supervise the contractor now they are lumping their problems on them- the small firms.

“All notwithstanding, our focus should be on ensuring that the NBI is commercialized, the third phase is embarked on very soon and that NITA should now embark on making strategies for providing the last mile connectivity solutions off the NBI to most of the rural areas,” said Baliddawa.

The NBI/EGI project is to be implemented in four phases; phase I estimated to have 168 Kilometer of fibre optic cable to link five towns including Mukono, Bombo, Entebbe and Jinja to Kampala completed in 2007 while phase II estimated to involve the laying of approximately 1477 kilometers of Optical Fiber Cable across the country to extend the national backbone to all parts of the Country is nearing completion.

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