Time for open data in fibre infrastructure


Open data standards for transparency have proven to be an effective approach to creating high-trust collaboration among multiple stakeholders for sharing data. Open data ensures that information is available to all on an equal basis and that there are common mechanisms for describing and sharing.

Today, as the world pursues more open data standards through initiatives like open contracting, which is about transparency in public contracting and Open Ownership, another aspect of open standard that has been given less importance is open data for fibre networks despite being in the digital evolution era.

The telecoms sector is increasingly underpinning every aspect of our lives, from education to commerce, access to government services to family life. This is more prominent during the Covid-19 where due to the lockdowns most of our daily activities were shifted to virtual and access to communication.

Yet, there is little information about the physical infrastructure that carries the information highway. And the lack of transparency is holding back efforts to grow connections.

Providing affordable access to telecoms and internet has taken a different route. After a long period of acceleration towards connecting everyone on the planet, there is evidence that network growth is slowing and it is unlikely that we will be able to provide affordable network infrastructure to all.

Though small network operators in the form of local internet service providers and community-owned networks are filing the gap on unequal coverage left by national network operators. Small network operators are now enabling local solutions to affordable access challenges.

But the challenge is that unavailability of information about network towers and radios to provide small network operators with accurate network coverage and establish where more investments need to be done and connections needed.

In Kenya, there is no detailed and public information on the extent of telecoms infrastructure for people like small network operators to understand access gaps and how they can provide local solutions.

For example, if one wants to map fibre coverage proximity against datasets of power stations, schools, hospitals and even the population in Kenya, there is no detailed information about Kenya’s fibre infrastructure.

One curious analysis is to check for a correlation between employment and proximity of fibre infrastructure to see if it leads to improved income. That would be interesting analysis but there is no public information for one to do it.

So, there is a need for transparency around fibre infrastructure to identify both duplication of investment and opportunities for investment in access infrastructure for governments and private sector. An investment can be made by other groups of infrastructure owners like real estate companies, but they need information first.

It is noted that claims of network coverage by mobile network operators all over the world are exaggerated. The definition of what varies widely from factors such as signal strength, indoor vs outdoor reception, percentage of people covered in a given geographic area, and required download speeds are all subject to interpretation.

Whether due to compliance with network roll-out requirements, negotiating roaming agreements with peers, or just the marketing value of big numbers, there are built-in incentives for providers to be generous with their claims.

Operators often argue that revealing this information would compromise their commercial competitiveness or jeopardise national security.

In Canada, the regulator publishes a downloadable list of the location of every licensed tower. In France, the regulator maintains a map of fibre-to-home deployments.

The Communications Authority can borrow a leaf and insist on open data access from network operators as part of infrastructure licensing and compliance.