|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2004|
|Topic:||Full Connectivity – A Regulatory Challenge and a Social Hope|
|Author:||Jean-Louis Beh Mengue|
|Organisation:||Telecommunications Regulatory Board of Cameroon|
Jean-Louis Beh Mengue has been the Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Board of Cameroon since it was founded in 1998.Before this, serving as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, he coordinated the reform of the telecommunications and postal sectors, which led to the creation of the Telecommunications Regulatory Board and two public corporations for posts and telecommunications. Mr Beh Mengue is also Cameroon’s representative to the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) Council, where his main responsibility is to ensure that the Cameroon’s ICT sector participates fully in the CTO and benefits from its programmes.
Historically, telecommunications started in the form of telegraphy, which was soon overtaken by voice telephony. A century and a half later we are seeing telephony itself being overtaken by the migration to IP platforms. The convergence of networks and technologies is blurring the line between telephone, audio-visual and data services that were traditionally provided over separate networks. Although liberalisation of the telecommunications sector in Cameroon has brought significant changes, especially in mobile telephone service, full network connectivity is still a long way off.
Introduction The telecommunications network in Cameroon has developed along the lines of separate networks for particular services, notably telex, data transmission and telegraph services. However, these networks all shared the same trunk transmission facilities, the backbone, of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). This infrastructure is also used for transporting television and audio signals from the production centre in the capital city, Yaounde, to the broadcasting stations located in different localities throughout the national territory. The expansion of the various telecommunications services is therefore conditioned on the development of the transmissions infrastructure of the incumbent. Services like telex and telegraphy have been losing ground to the Internet which provides substitutes services such as email. The Internet and other dedicated IP networks can also carry voice and this is posing serious regulatory problems. Corporate private independent networks are growing in importance. They provide a bouquet of services, which mainly include data transmission, videoconference and telephony to their users. The private networks that have international gateways and are connected to the Internet are being used as a bypass for traffic that would otherwise have been routed through the PSTN. The backbone telephone network is therefore vital to the development of the other services and is going to be more so as the convergence of network and services gain grounds. In a bid to accelerate network development and the contribution of telecommunications sector to the socio-economic life of the country, the government of Cameroon decided to fast-track the reform of the telecommunications sector in the mid 1990s. This culminated with the enactment of law No: 98/014 of 14 July 1998, governing telecommunications in Cameroon. This law and subsequent regulatory instruments defined the legal, regulatory and institutional framework of the sector; it liberalised certain markets and set the stage for privatisation and restructuring of public telecommunications entities. The law created the Telecommunic-ations Regulatory Board (TRB) with responsibilities to regulate, control and monitor the activities of the sector. The main functions of the TRB are to facilitate market entry, to ensure market development through fair competition between market players, to settle disputes, to manage scares resources, to promote service provision to underserved and rural areas and to define principles for tariff setting by the telecommunications operators. The TRB is working to change the telecommunications sector by improving the level of access to services, encouraging the liberalisation of the sector and by promoting a high level of fair competition. To achieve these goals, the challenging issues below have to be addressed. Inadequate infrastructure Before the advent of liberalisation, the backbone trunk transmission system of the incumbent operator consisted mainly of digital and analogue PDH (Plesiochronous Digital Hierarchy) microwave radio links, with the main digital link between the political capital, Yaounde and the economic capital, Douala. The current regulatory framework gives the incumbent the exclusive rights to provide trunk transmission facilities to all other operators on a lease basis. However, with the rapid build-out of mobile networks and the shortage of transmission facilities to lease from the incumbent, the mobile operators were given special authorisation to build transmission infrastructures for their exclusive use. These infrastructures enabled the mobile operators to respect the coverage condition in their licence and provide service in additional and mostly urban and economically viable areas. The mobile subscriber base increased substantially from about 5000 in 2000 to 701,507 in 2002 overtaking the fixed subscriber base in 2001. During this same period, The fixed subscriber base increased by 14 per cent to 112,881 in 2002. This exponential growth in the number of mobile subscribers is mainly due to under-provision of the fixed lines during the years of monopoly provision by the ministry of posts and telecommunications. The backlog of waiting-list customers kept increasing, with the delay for service reaching as long as ten years. A look at a nationwide picture with regards to the availability of telephone service (fixed or mobile) shows great disparity between the ten provinces and in each province between the urban and rural areas. By the end of 2002 only 34 per cent of the 321 council areas benefited from fixed or mobile telephone service. A great majority of the 213 unserved council areas are found in the rural zones. Universal service The law governing telecommunications in Cameroon created a Telecommuni-cations Special Fund destined for the provision of Universal service and for the development of telecommunications within the national territory. The fund is managed by the TRB and its revenue will come mainly from contributions made by telecommunications operators and service providers. So far no operator has contributed to the fund because there is no established framework for its proper, transparent, management. The framework has to include: a special licensing regime for operators; a mode of attribution of contract for networks build-out and/or provision of universal service, such as the least cost bidding widely used in South America; and a compensation mechanism for the universal service provider. The law defines the Universal Service Obligation (USO) as the provision of basic telecommunications services. These include telephone (local, national and international), facsimile, telex and telegraph services; the provision of emergency services; and the provision of an official universal telephone directory. Universal service within the context of a country with teledensity as low as Cameroon is normally taken to mean universal access. Accordingly, it will be necessary to set minimum access standards like average distance to a public telephone access point or minimum time to walk to such an access point. There is also need to review the scope of universal service. With the constant decline in the use of telex and telegraphy, which form part of the USO, it will not be cost effective for the incumbent to continue to provide these services. On the other hand, the mobile telephone networks operators have extended their national coverage into more and more rural areas. Nevertheless, the rural population has yet to benefit adequately from the services offered since the operators are prohibited in their licence from providing and operating public telephone access points. There is a need for a framework for universal service that would include mobile telephone services and Internet access. The telecentre concept is gaining ground and Cameroon is engaged in installing some trial centres in the very near future. Tariff rebalancing Tariff rebalancing is usually applied in a situation where the fixed line incumbent operator is given a period to gradually reduce its cross-subsidy from long distance and international communications services, charged above cost, to local communications services, charged below cost. The incumbent normally provides fixed services on a monopoly basis during an exclusivity period. It is then constrained by the regulator to completely eliminate cross subsidies and align tariffs with cost, by the end of the period. In the case of Cameroon, since the international market was liberalised the competition that ensued caused a dramatic reduction in the incumbent’s tariff. The incumbent has reduced its tariff on some international destinations by 70 per cent between 2000 and 2002. On the other hand, although the local communications tariff has increased by 200 per cent during this same period to its present 40 Francs CFA per three minutes, it is still well below the true cost of providing the service. The incumbent is still suffering loses in the local market and no compensation mechanism has been put in place. This situation is unsustainable; it needs to be addressed, taking into consideration the effect a tariff increase would have on the low income customers and the impact on the growth of ‘dial-up’ Internet service. Introduction of innovative services The fastpace of technological change, coupled with the drastic reduction in equipment and operation cost, has led to rapid deployment of cost effective new services. The provision of some of these services has not been clearly defined under the current regulations. They will continue to be provided within an irregular legal framework if the TRB continue to exercise regulatory forbearance. One of the areas of contention is the provision of IP telephony by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) at very little addition cost. On the other hand, the licences issued in Cameroon are technologically neutral, which implies IP telephony of the same quality is functionally equivalent to the traditional telephony through the PSTN. The ISP may be infringing the exclusivity of the incumbent fixed line operator by providing IP telephony to the public. However, banning its provision will stifle technological progress and will be detrimental to the sector’s development, considering the worldwide migration to IP platforms for fixed and mobile service. The need for an effective ICT policy The vital role ICT is playing in the socio-economic development of nations has been recognised by the UN and also by world leaders who, in the recent World Summit for Information Society (WSIS) held in Geneva in December 2003, committed their governments to implementing the WSIS action plan. Any ICT policy framework in Cameroon needs to take into consideration the present telecommunication sector legislative framework and to incorporate the needs of the other stakeholders. These include sectors like education, agriculture, commerce, health and the civil society. There is also a need for top-level government direction and supervision, as ICT policy formulation will need an all inclusive, multi-sectoral, approach. We hope to gain from the momentum of the preparation for the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) and to establish a body to draw up this policy and oversee its implementation. Such a policy will include important issues, such as: the reduction of import duties and the creation of conditions favourable for local manufacture/assembly of ICT products, such as PCs Measures to be taken to reduce the costs of ‘dial-up’ Internet access and international bandwidth, as Internet traffic from/to Cameroon is very ‘US-centric’ The effective use of ICT in the attainment of national goals in the areas of health, governance, agriculture and commerce ◗ The creation of relevant local content so that the Internet can serve as a tool for development. The present content, which is mainly in English and text-oriented, is of little value to most of our rural population, the majority of whom are illiterate. As the phenomenon of convergence is blurring the dividing line between data, voice and audio-visual services, there is a need for the TRB to move from a single sector telecommunications regulator to encompass the broader ICT sector. Capacity building The creation of the TRB coincided with the liberalisation of the telecommunications sector. The first management team, appointed in 1998, had to urgently set up the organisational chart and make the necessary recruitments and appointments. The present staff of the TRB consists mainly of government civil servants, on secondment from the ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and those recruited from the job market. Although most of the civil servants had good backgrounds in telecommunication operations, there is still a great need for capacity building in all aspects of regulation. So far our capacity building efforts have been realised through international organisations like the World Bank, the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). There a great need for a strategic plan for capacity building that is in line with the TRB’s long-term strategies. Such a plan should include: Assessing the present needs in capacity building with a view to defining the real training needs of the TRB Identifying the training and development method most appropriate to meet our needs Recognising the critical importance of content development as complimentary to the infrastructure deployment Building expertise not only within the TRB staff, but also across a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including judges and lawyers who arbitrate issues related to the ICT sector, legislators, operators/investors, civil society and, most importantly, the public and consumers Exploiting the benefits of sharing experiences through regional and, where necessary, international peering arrangements with other regulatory bodies Using long-term, institutional capacity-building of training and academic institutions to address the skills requirements of the ICT sector. The main areas of priority in the formulation and implementation of these strategic capacity building plans would include: Knowledge and skill requirements for effective regulation, comprising: o legal aspects o standard setting o quality of service (QoS) measurement o interconnection tariff determination and negotiations. Regulatory governance ICT awareness creation amongst ICT sector members and stakeholders The fostering of innovation, especially in mobile and IP-based services Consumer empowerment aimed at creating an environment for market regulation Definition of the principles for tariff setting. Conclusion After years of stagnation, telecommunication sector reform has brought about a remarkable increase in product offers, network availability and a continued decrease in prices. The goal of full connectivity is still a long way off. However, concerted efforts can be made to address the challenges in the sector in order to establish an effective regulatory regime.