Leonard Ncube, Victoria Falls Reporter
A CONTINENTAL telecom infrastructure provider, Bandwidth and Cloud Services (BCS) Group yesterday commissioned the first multi-million dollar rail fibre optic project to connect Zimbabwe and Africa with broadband services leveraging on existing rail infrastructure.
The project is set to make Zimbabwe the epicentre of internet traffic in Africa.
More than US$18 million was invested in the first phase of the project which started in Beitbridge along the railway line past Rutenga, Somabhula, Bulawayo and Hwange to Victoria Falls.
The second phase will see the network extending from Somabhula via Gweru to Harare as well as Bulawayo-Plumtree and Harare-Mutare.
In the final phase, the fibre optic system will be installed from Rutenga to Chikwalakwala to cover the whole rail network in the country before extending to Zambia into the region.
This dovetails with the Second Republic’s philosophy of leaving no one and no place behind in the quest to realise an upper middle-income society by 2030, and will also feed into Africa Agenda 2063 as the project will extend to the whole continent following existing rail network.
Information Communication Technologies, Postal and Courier Services Minister Dr Jenfan Muswere presided over the launch in Victoria Falls yesterday.
The BCS Group partnered with National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) and uses advanced technology to dig and lay cables under the ground on the side of the railway line, ushering the country into the 4th industrial revolution.
A locomotive pulling a 100-tonne machine is used to plough 1,2 metres deep on the side of the rail simultaneously laying a hollow duck pipe in which the cables will be running, and there is a device that fills the trench immediately.
Manholes are prepared every 4km along the railway line where technical workmen comprising different nationalities employed by the Mauritius-headquartered BCS, use a winch to pull the cables through the duck and join them.
Two 96 wire cores/cables are laid side by side and only two of the 96 will be used to transmit broadband and the rest can be sold to other network partners, BCS experts said
Cables have been laid from Beitbridge to Victoria Falls and BCS group managing director Mr Yonas Maru said they are only waiting for Zesa to connect 12 sites where the system will be hosted along the railway and anticipate rolling out the network in February next year.
Dr Muswere said the project will be a game changer as it will transform lives of millions of Zimbabweans through technology.
“Today we are here in Victoria Falls to underline Government’s commitment to improving people’s livelihoods in line with the Africa Continental Free Trade Area concept. The deployment of fibre across the country demonstrates the desire by Government to empower people through technology and the digital economy and this launch signifies the role of the Government in connecting the unconnected towards realising our Vision 2030,” said Dr Muswere.
He said this came a day after Government launched the National Broadband Plan to enhance access to technology by industry, adding that this is key to the growth of Africa which has a young generation and an emerging economy.
BCS is a wholesale carrier providing fibre connectivity solutions in Africa and came into Zimbabwe during the Covid-19 lockdown with the aim of connecting places that have no roads hence using the railway network.
The project becomes the first cloud rail network in Africa.
Mr Maru said they used the Covid-19 period to design a fibre network and started in Zimbabwe in partnership with NRZ after getting a licence from the Postal and Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz).
“Millions of Zimbabweans will soon experience cheaper and faster network connectivity. This is a first of its kind happening in remote areas in the region along the existing railway from Zimbabwe to DRC and Angola.
“Our vision is to make Zimbabwe the centre of internet traffic of Africa as Zimbabwe is at the centre of the railway network in the continent,” said Mr Maru.
He said the system will also help overcome the challenges of destruction of overhead cables by cyclones.
Mr Maru said the system is safe from vandalism since cables are more than one metre deep and the cost of manually digging them exceeds the cost of the cable itself.
He said BCS believes that expensive and inaccessible telecommunication keeps citizens poor.
“We will have the fibre infrastructure built on the 1 180km stretch from Beitbridge, Rutenga, Somabhula, and Bulawayo and to Victoria Falls. Equipment is already there and we are just waiting for Zesa to connect the 12 sites where the equipment will be hosted and this should be running at the beginning of February,” he said.
“We are doing this for the first time in Africa and our ultimate goal is for people everywhere to have cheaper and affordable internet that can support all uses. About US$18 million was invested in the first phase of 1 180km venture and a similar amount will be used on the next phase of the same distance.
Mr Maru said work on the Somabhula to Harare stretch will start next month.
He said BSC will benefit by commercially satisfying its funders and practically believes it is important to contribute to the growth of Africa.
Potraz Director-General Dr Gift Machengete said bandwidth is the bedrock of the 4th industrial revolution.
“The project being launched today improves broadband connectivity as broadband is the new catalyst for job creation, global competitiveness and betterment of lives,” he said adding that Potraz recognises the socio-economic benefits of broadband on everything including social life.
NRZ will benefit from access to free unlimited connection which will help improve the railway authority’s signal system, the parastatal’s general manager Ms Respina Zinyanduko said.
She said the NRZ cherishes the project as it is also leasing out some wagons and locomotives to BCS on a win-win arrangement. NRZ, she added, is excited to be part of the project which is in line with the Government philosophy of collaborations by parastatals.
“When they came we thought they were one of those projects that come and not take us anywhere but we were surprised by the speed at which they were moving. To us this is an opportunity where we will work on our signal as we will get unlimited access to connection,” she said. – @ncubeleon