There is this new building in Nairobi that is now inviting new tenants to occupy it after being recently completed and opened with much fanfare. As usual, new tenants were expected to fit suitable furniture and fittings into their new premises. But there was one problem: The building; in all its glory, lacked suitable telecommunication raiser ducts and conduits and occupants could neither pull cable to create Local Area Networks nor could they easily connect any floor to the basement where a local ISP had placed its fiber optic switch. The building owners also asked the tenants to bear any costs related to the modification of the building to enable the setting up of telecommunication infrastructure.
I searched the Kenya building code of 2009 and the National Construction Authority Regulations of 2014 to see if any of them compel building designers to incorporate telecommunication ducts as part of a buildings services in a similar manner it specifies requirements for plumbing, electrical cabling, ventilation and heating/cooling. Sadly both do not make it mandatory for designers to incorporate into their designs paths, risers, ducts, trays or any other cable containment mechanisms that will enable the easy pulling, organizing and routing of telecommunication cables to any part of the building.
For buildings that have incorporated telecommunication cabling space and paths in their design and construction, the MDF or telecommunication room is usually small, poorly ventilated, poorly supplied with power and mostly located on the basement of most buildings which can sometimes be a long distance to the top floor depending on the building height. Building owners are also charging telecommunication companies hosting charges to host their switches and other equipment in the MDF room. These charges vary from a low of KES 3,000 to a high of KES 25,000 a month with or without electric supply. In the same breath, utility companies providing water and electricity are not charged rent for their equipment and fixtures such as electricity meters by the building owners to avail their products and services to the same tenants. In fact, its the building owners who pay the utility companies for them to bring in services to them.
With nearly every office needing internet connectivity for normal operations just like they need electricity, water and drainage, why do building owners create barriers for telecommunication companies by not making their buildings cable ready and if they do, go ahead and levy monthly rent for the cabinet hosting the equipment? Some building owners have also gone ahead and signed exclusivity agreements with one provider to host their equipment and avail internet connectivity in the whole building, locking out competitors. I know of operators who have been denied building entry to avail services to potential customers because competition locked them out with an exclusivity agreement between them and the building owner.
Outside buildings, telecom operators also have to apply and pay for wayleaves and permits from county governments and the Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA) to trench, lay cable, and do back-filling. It takes an average of three weeks to obtain a permit from any of these bodies and at a significant cost too. Permits to cross major highways by way of micro-tunneling can take several months to obtain.
The above challenges exist because there is no clear legal framework in which the telecom operators can work in to avail their services which can now be considered as utility services similar to electricity and water supply. There is need to do the following so as to make it easier for the operators and consumers of their services:
- Amend the Kenyan building regulations to ensure that all commercial an multi-dwelling residential units such as apartments have suitable and standardized telecommunication cable pathways and containment fixtures. MDF room location should also take into consideration the transmission distance limitations of some technologies such as electrical/copper based cable maximum transmit distances.
- Make it illegal for building owners to sign exclusivity agreements with a single or a select number of providers and baring the rest from building entry. Every operator should be given equal and reasonable access to their potential customers in any building. The proposed Kenya infrastructure sharing act can incorporate a section that outlaws exclusivity agreements as they also effectively bar infrastructure sharing.
- The Kenya wayleave act cap 292 should be amended and modernized to reflect the current realities. The act assumes that the government is the sole provider of utility services and does also not incorporate the provision of utilities by private enterprises.
- All road designs where necessary and possible, should incorporate buried ducts and manholes along the entire stretch of the road and suitable micro-tunnel crossings to carry any operators fiber-optic and coaxial cables at a small monthly fee payable to the road owner (KeNHA or county government). This will avoid instances where each operator has to trench and bury their own cable. This is sometimes done on the same side and section of the road and often leads to accidental cutting of a competitors cable as an operator trenches to lay their own cable. In the last 3 months, I’ve heard of about 4 instances of this happening in Kenya. Other than this, frequent trenching of roads inconveniences other road users and pedestrians. This is especially true in cities and towns.
- County governments should be compelled by law to not charge telecom operators for permits to lay cable, this can be done by amending the Kenya Information and Communication act section 85 and 86 to explicitly state that no fees should be levied by local authorities and also specify timelines within which permits should be granted. The overall economic effect of letting the operators lay cable without many barriers such as fees and delays in approvals far outweigh the financial gain from permit fees by the county governments.
- Physical planning departments in both national and county governments should incorporate telecommunication infrastructure real estate current and future needs when designing cities and towns.
- The Kenya Information and Communication act should specify harsher punishment to telecom infrastructure vandalism acts such as fiber optic cable cutting or destruction of a mobile/wireless base station. In the same breath, it should also compel operators to conduct awareness campaigns to citizens living near telecommunication infrastructure on the dangers of tampering with the infrastructure.
Recent research shows that access to telecommunication services such as the Internet and telephony has a great impact on the socioeconomic well being of citizens especially in developing countries such as Kenya. It is therefore important that operators get all the support from the government in their quest to roll out services to the citizens because in dong so, they help the government in meeting its socioeconomic objectives.