The Computer Society of Kenya

Since 1986


Monday June 16,2014

Safaricom has come under fire from parliamentarians and civil society following the plan by government to award the company a multi-billion shilling tender for supply and installation of a high-tech police communications system.

The firm has defended the intended award of the tender through single-sourcing, saying it has the technical and financial capacity to deliver on the project. The Business Daily spoke to Safaricom chief executive Bob Collymore on some of the issues raised regarding the Sh15 billion tender: 

Did you consider the reputational risk that comes with taking a government tender of this magnitude?

Yes, we went into this tender process with a full appreciation of some of the risks involved, including those that would potentially impact our corporate reputation.

What then convinced you that the tender was worth taking?

Our conviction to go ahead with the project was based on a number of simple considerations. Building communications networks is what we have been doing successfully for the past 14½ years.

We currently run telecommunications infrastructure worth billions of dollars, all of which have been built progressively through projects administered by Safaricom’s engineers in partnership with the best of breed technology providers.

The scope of the security tender was well within our technical and financial capabilities based on the desire by government to take a managed service option that would guarantee the deployment of a high pedigree and timely solution for the National Police Service.

There is no other company in Kenya that would invest Sh15 billion upfront of its own cash and only request for payment over a five-year period when the service was up and running.

We are building an independent secure network for up to 50,000 users that runs on base stations, optical fibre, micro-wave links and intelligent core network equipment.

At present we already have a commercial public network that carries over 21 million users on any given day. The commercial networks are even more complex in their administration.

Our confidence is further reinforced by the fact that this model has been adopted in many countries across the world and there is an ample pool of specialist knowledge at our disposal to give us additional advisory services where required.

We are a Kenyan company whose continued growth and investment in Kenya is largely contingent upon the security of the country and as such, we have a moral responsibility to use our financial position and technical knowhow to work alongside the government to deliver what we feel is the first phase of some truly transformative technical capabilities that will empower our law enforcement agencies to combat the ever-increasing complexities of today’s security challenges.

Do you think that some disgruntled competitors could be taking advantage of the situation to sling mud at Safaricom?

We are fully cognisant that there are some disgruntled elements that are working to frustrate the roll out of this project. The process of procurement was above board and well documented, which is why we welcome the probe by Parliament because it will give the country an opportunity to verify this information.

Do you feel that the parliamentary probe will be free and fair?

It is not our place to question the motives or competency of the institution of Parliament. However, we are confident that they will be guided at all times in their decision making by what will ultimately be in the best interests of the security of the Kenyan people.

How does this latest outcry resonate with the complaints that came following the non-functioning Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system in last year’s General Election? What lessons did Safaricom learn?

We had no role to play at all in the provision and or operation of the BVR system. What we did provide was a private data network for the results transmission. This service had an uptime of 100 per cent availability.

We did learn many lessons from the project, which have subsequently been successfully implemented in 21 by-elections. These include the need for advance planning by all involved in any project.

Our client, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, did not have enough time to plan for the appropriate use of technology — that is, sufficient time to train the users, test all facets of the technology from the terminal equipment, user devices, software, storage and network coverage in remote areas.

For this project we have factored in realistic timelines for joint network planning with the security agencies, advance training of trainers for all technical staff seconded by the National Police Service, design of the network topology and deployment and testing of the solution in measureable phases prior to going live.

What is your response to concerns over Safaricom’s past failure to meet regulatory quality of service standards?

Our quality of service (QoS) concerns are localised to specific areas within high density environments where our current frequency allocations remain inadequate for the amount of traffic that we carry, which is at least four times more than that of our nearest competitor.

As things stand today the QoS performance of all operators has been the same and it is, therefore, not a problem isolated to Safaricom.

This fact has necessitated a formal review of the methodology used by the industry regulator and hopefully should result in more accurate measures being used for quality benchmarking. 

Who will own the infrastructure being set up? What are the features of the leasing arrangement and is it value for taxpayers’ money?

The infrastructure will belong to the National Police Service on a build, operate and transfer model after the expiry of the final agreed contract period.

Whereas Safaricom incurs the capital expense upfront at the time of building the network, the government only starts paying back on an annual basis one full year after it comes into operation.

In terms of value for money, the contract price was arrived at using an open book accounting method to ensure that the customer has full visibility of all costs.

How about maintenance and warranty on the system? Whose responsibility is it?

As the network provider we have guaranteed the National Police Service a network availability of 99.9 per cent with a service level agreement that factors in service credits for any network downtimes attributable to Safaricom.

Safaricom is 40 per cent owned by Vodafone of the UK. How secure is the system from hacking, infiltration and espionage?

The ownership of Safaricom has no correlation to its ability to deliver a secure network. Safaricom is 60 per cent locally owned and has over the last 14 years safely carried the traffic of its customers without complaint.

On issues relating to espionage, those are not within our purview to comment on. However, one would note from recent international incidents that global geo-politics on unlawful interception have impacted a number of first world countries. We would, therefore, leave the job of countering espionage to the legally mandated institutions.

Elaborate further on the quality of equipment being installed.

The network that will be built has several components. Whereas we are not at liberty to discuss any of them in great detail for security reasons, we can say that it will use  the latest LTE Push To Talk standard for public safety systems that uses the lower frequency bands assigned to security services.

It will be a stand alone independent IP network with multiple redundancies that will deliver high speed video, voice and data a wide ranging number of secure device.

The surveillance network that will consist of various types of cameras that will be networked to a central point from which analytics and other functions can be carried out by the National Police Service.

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