Joining the dots: Issues ‘Connect Africa’ should consider

CIPESA Briefing Paper, November 2007

The ‘Connect Africa’ Summit will take place in Kigali, Rwanda on October 29-30 2007, under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Global Alliance for ICT and Development (GAID). The ITU has labelled the Summit a ‘Marshall Plan for ICT infrastructure development in Africa’ which underlines the recognition by the Connect Africa initiative of the critical importance of developing ICT infrastructure to enable Africa to join the Information Society.
Among the key concerns of Connect Africa are that Internet services needed for business, government and consumer applications continue to be either very expensive or not available due to limited broadband network infrastructure; and that rural connectivity and access remain inadequate as does the availability of locally relevant content, applications and services.
This paper outlines some of the issues that need to be addressed for the vision of boosting connectivity in Africa to be realised.

Africa’s connectivity nightmare

A person in a high-income country is over 22 times more likely to be an Internet user than someone in a low-income country. And in high-income countries, mobile phones are 29 times more prevalent, and mainline penetration is 21 times that of low-income countries (UNCTAD 2006). The few Internet users in Africa pay exorbitant charges for a service that tends to be slower than elsewhere in the world owing to low bandwidth problems. The penetration of broadband stands at just about 2% of total Internet usage, and the continent boasts 0.1% of the world’s broadband connections, compared to its share of the global mobile connections of 4%.  This in turn makes the Internet less useful for those Africans that have access to it than it is for their counterparts in America, Asia, and Europe.

Consequently, it becomes especially difficult for the majority of Africans with access to the Internet to engage in any meaningful trade and business using the Internet, implying for instance that they can hardly take advantage of the numerous Business Process Outsourcing Opportunities from which other countries such as India, Thailand and the Philippines are reaping huge benefits. Some argue that with the current Internet costs and usage levels in Africa, and the low penetration of broadband connectivity, it remains a big challenge to meaningfully employ the Internet to promote trade and agriculture, or education and health services delivery, in Africa.

In 2006, the mobile phone became the first communications technology to have more users in developing countries than in developed ones, with more than 800 million mobile phones sold in developing countries in the preceding three years.  African countries have been a key contributor to this achievement, as they have registered the world’s highest mobile phone growth, ranging from 50% to 400% in the last three years. But as ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré has pointed out, Africa’s goal should be to replicate the success of the mobile phone in broadband capability, with the aim of achieving “Internet access in every village, every school, every university, every hospital.”
Here below we examine some of the issues we consider need to be addressed so as to realise the aspirations of the Connect Africa initiative:

Open Access in relation to demand for connectivity
Whereas supply may create demand, this may not always be the case with ICT as has been evidenced at several telecentres; many have been established but the local communities hardly use them.  Quite likely, fibre initiatives will enable individuals and organisations that already have Internet connectivity, in predominantly urban areas, to upgrade their connectivity, but enable few additional connections outside the currently connected circuits – unless effective demand is created for the fibre. This means if business continues the way it is conducted in the majority of African countries, the rural dwellers, who make up more than 85% in many countries, are likely to remain unconnected even if fibre is built.

Africa needs Open Access ICT backbone infrastructure. This need is informed by the desire to assure affordable access for users, and a multiplicity of service providers that operate in a level-playing field. Affordability remains a critical issue in having more Africans using the Internet, so Open Access would boost Internet usage by enabling even small operators to tap into regional/national fibre networks and offer services, including in areas the big players would ignore because their return on investment would be perceived to be low. Ideally, the low start-up capital would enable a myriad of operators to come up. They would access high-quality bandwidth, charge low prices, and then several thousands, maybe millions more Africans would be able to afford and start using the Internet.

Open Access requires that owners of assets that are thought to be unique/ costly/ wasteful to duplicate, make them available to others at a competitive price. Countries where exclusivity periods for telecos are ending are requiring all infrastructure providers to allow access to their resources at competitive prices so that new entrants are not disadvantaged vis-à-vis the existing infrastructure owners. It still has to be seen whether these requirements will be efficiently enforced.

How Government should help in creating demand
Governments should raise demand for ICT services by becoming bigger consumers and by offering online services. This should go a long way in creating demand for ICT goods and services. Governments should therefore provide services online, to enable electronic public supply delivery with all its attendant benefits. The idea is that while telecom companies and others are working on supplying fibre, efforts should at the same time be underway to boost demand for the bandwidth.

Electronic Government entails the public sector’s use of information and communication technologies to improve information and service delivery, encouraging citizen participation in the decision-making process and making government more accountable, transparent and effective.  But so many factors are stacked against the effective working of eGovernment in East Africa. These range from lack of infrastructure to both run the services and access the services; shortage of skills among users and public servants; lack of a culture (sometimes mechanisms) for sharing information; lack of requisite legislation; and the tendency for public information to be kept out of the public. African governments need to address these issues as part of an holistic focus on the connectivity challenge.

Content matters – a lot!
In addition to Governments’ role in creating demand, content will drive demand for services. Initiatives that create infrastructure, and which seek to enable an IT usage revolution in Africa, should also address the issue of creating content that is useful to African users. This content should address the known and expected needs of African users in the areas of agriculture, education, health, governance, among others – and it should include foreign languages (French/ English/ Portuguese/ Arabic …) as well as content in local languages.

Currently, African-generated content is only a tiny fraction of the online content. This means that what is available on the Internet (and associated mediums) is not always relevant to Africans.
However, the development of content cannot be achieved without empowering people and organisations in Africa to enable them to develop and disseminate this content.

Address the Power problem
The lack of access to electricity (and the high costs incurred by those who have access) must be addressed comprehensively if any meaningful improvements in ICT connectivity are to occur. More than 75% of Africans do have access to electricity, and the majority of them remain effectively locked out of the Information Society. Percentages of the population are very low – Rwanda (<5%), Lesotho (6.5%), Uganda (6%), Kenya (15%), Tanzania (7%), Zambia (20%), Malawi (6%). Power shortages have made it impossible for private operators to extend services to some areas; and in other localities where they offer services they have to run costly diesel-powered generators which heavily push up their costs. The World Bank says the “energy poor” in Africa spend about $17 billion a year on fuel-based lighting sources – such as kerosene lamps, which are costly, inefficient, and provide poor quality light while polluting and posing fire hazards.

Set regulations and promote competition

Governments need to set policies, rules and regulations to guide fibre development and use, but these should be developed through a multistakeholder process with active representation from telecom companies, ISPs, civil society, regulatory agencies, and academic and research institutions, among others. As has been seen from the experience of telecoms in Africa, monopoly providers curtail development of services, while keeping prices artificially high and unaffordable to the majority of citizens.
Regulators will therefore need to put in place competitive safeguards to enable new/smaller providers to access infrastructure that may be developed by the big, often incumbent, providers. As the WTO has noted, easy and non-discriminatory access to unbundled services; non-discriminatory, transparent, and cost-oriented interconnection terms for competing service providers; preventing cross-subsidies from services or facilities provided on an exclusive or dominant basis, as well as protecting the genuine business interests of those who invest in infrastructure, are all key to boosting affordability and connectivity.

Infrastructure Sharing
African policy makers, development workers and telecom operators need to ask themselves what role infrastructure sharing can play in improving/lowering costs of connectivity. A lot of resources are being wasted in a duplication of efforts, which in turn renders connectivity more costly. Many African states’ ICT policies have recently recognised the role of supporting infrastructure in improving connectivity. The Kenyan ICT policy, for instance, requires that physical infrastructure providers – for example roads, railways, pipelines, property developers and power providers – should make provision for future installation of ICT facilities. In Zambia, power companies are delivering or selling bandwidth to telecom companies.

Complement fibre with wireless to deliver last mile connectivity
Among the key enablers of universal access are affordable interconnection arrangements and bandwidth costs. The Wireless Local Loop (WLL), the use of a wireless communication link as the ‘last mile’ connection for delivering telephone and broadband Internet services to end users, is increasingly being seen as a convenient technological contributor to universal access in Africa. It has good quality voice and high-speed broadband capabilities, good access speed and relatively low cost of deployment. But there are challenges, including high interconnection rates, high cost of bandwidth, locating base stations, and consumer understanding of the technology.

Without a doubt, wireless technologies offer affordable means of reaching less isolated rural customers without laying cable or stringing copper wire. Consideration should therefore be given to employing them to compliment fibre, as well as other technologies, in extending connectivity across the last mile and to other users that are difficult to connect.

Conclusion
African countries need to adopt and implement Open Access for ICT backbone infrastructure. They also need to build on ongoing universal access initiatives to improve connectivity, and this should include rethinking the Community Multipurpose Communication centres. But as cables are being laid, efforts need to be made to create demand for connectivity, as well as relevant content, and governments should play a pivotal role in this.

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