|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2008|
|Topic:||ICT convergence enhancing regional integration in Africa|
|Author:||H.E. Mr Abdoulie Janneh|
|Organisation:||United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)|
Mr Abdoulie Janneh (Gambia) is the seventh Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the regional arm of the United Nations in Africa, at the rank of Under-Secretary-General. Prior to ECA, Mr Janneh served as Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Regional Director for Africa. In that capacity, he managed United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) largest Regional Bureau, covering 45 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to that, he held a number of senior positions in UNDP and its affiliated funds. Mr Janneh has been a strong advocate for development efforts including promotion of good governance, economic reform, the fight against HIV/AIDS, fair trade, crisis prevention and poverty eradication. Mr Janneh remains particularly interested in the institutional transformation of the African Union, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Mr Janneh holds an MA in Urban and Regional Planning Studies from the University of Nottingham in England. He also graduated from Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone (Engineering Science) and undertook postgraduate studies in Project Planning and Appraisal at the University of Bradford in England.
The convergence of communications services – voice, data, video and broadcast – via the same digital network holds great promise for the socio-economic development of the African continent. There are many challenges to overcome, though, if Africa is to meet the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) goal of “bridging the digital divide by 2015”. Africa’s nations, United Nations agencies and regional telecommunications and developmental organisations are working towards regional integration and the adoption of regulatory frameworks throughout the continent that foster ICT growth and convergence.
As technologies become digital, the transmission of hitherto different services (telephony, television, Internet) via the same digital network is creating convergence. Convergence of telecom and IT is very important for Africa’s socioeconomic development and growth because it can shape the delivery of government services (including education and health), redefine the way businesses operate and provide individuals with yet unimagined information and communication services. As African countries adapt to convergence, they ensure expanded access to communications with reduced costs, which in turn stimulates economic growth. Adapting to convergence is a condition for full and effective participation in the global economy and information society, a goal defined by the UN’s World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) as “bridging the digital divide by 2015”. However, like many other developing regions, Africa faces a number of challenges to embrace convergence including infrastructure and institutional capacity, regional integration and the regulatory framework. Building the African ICT infrastructure Africa has a critically important need to develop its communication infrastructure and increase broadband access. ICT infrastructure is the foundation on which ICT services for commerce, government and society can flow. Moreover, this infrastructure is essential for African countries to achieve regional integration and to enable poor people to participate in the knowledge economy. Economic growth in Africa will depend upon widespread access to ICT services, which in turn provide access to local, national, regional, and global markets. Therefore, national and regional backbones, cross-border links, and rural connectivity need to be vastly expanded, in parallel with the deployment of applications to take advantage of connectivity for productive use. For example, the Government of Uganda embraced ICT as a tool for enhancing health-care services for poverty eradication and attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). ICT has been an important element in the Ugandan President’s strategy to modernise the country and improve access to health services and health information. Broadband is necessary as a key pillar of the infrastructure needed for the Information Society. Broadband-enabled services have the potential to create economic and empowerment opportunities and improve lives. Indeed, some of the applications that are having the greatest impact on people and businesses are closely linked to broadband penetration. For a region like Africa, broadband is not a luxury, but a necessity in an increasingly information and knowledge-based society. Broadband access opens the door to the knowledge-based economy and promotes the region’s social and economic development. Broadband can be harnessed to improve many key initiatives such as Community Access, Community Telecentres, Cyber Cafes, e-Health, and e-Learning. Today, wealthy countries dominate broadband penetration. According to a recent ITU report, in 2006 some 70 per cent of broadband subscribers worldwide were located in high-income countries, which accounted for just 16 per cent of world population. Cost is the major challenge for broadband connectivity in Africa. Communication costs in Africa are currently up to hundreds of times higher than in Europe, Asia or North America. This particularly affects those with the most limited resources: students, researchers, doctors, scientists, other public servants and the general public who are unable to take full advantage of the unprecedented access to knowledge the Internet provides. Cheaper bandwidth for African institutions, particularly governments, schools, universities, libraries and hospitals would provide widespread access to the wealth of information available online, facilitate African contributions to the global economy and increase the likelihood of successful solutions to African development problems. Bandwidth has become the crucial ingredient of the knowledge society, but it is not adequately available where most needed – in Africa’s developing nations. Unless connectivity is improved, efforts to accelerate economic development in Africa are unlikely to bear fruit. Better connectivity offers the prospect for African countries to transform their economies from reliance on traditional activities, with low productivity and weak growth outlook, to more advanced activities that can sustain higher wages, create new employment and reap the other social benefits. South Africa has managed to rollout and expand broadband and this should inspire other developing countries. The government heavily supports broadband rollout. Countries such as Algeria, Mauritius, Morocco, Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi and others have also made significant strides in broadband rollout. According to an Internet article, in Malawi, ISP Africa Online offers a wireless broadband service in Lilongwe, the capital, and a second city, Blantyre, Mauritius is benefiting from its broadband roll out due to its ability to attract foreign investments in ICT Off-Shore Outsourcing business. The rollout and expansion of broadband in Africa is taking shape, although at a snail’s pace. Although broadband has arrived in Africa, it is still limited to a very small segment of the society. African Governments needs to do a lot of work to improve new media and ICTs technologies and infrastructures and rollout affordable broadband. Recognising the significance of broadband in Africa, the recently held Connect Africa summit under the patronage of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame; among the goals adopted there are: • Interconnect all African capitals and major cities with ICT broadband infrastructure and strengthen connectivity to the rest of the world by 2012; and • Connect African villages to broadband ICT services by 2015 and implement shared access initiatives such as community telecentres and village phones. Reshaping the regulatory framework When governments address convergence, the second area of concern is their regulatory framework. The regulatory framework has to be redefined or new regulatory frameworks created in order to respond to convergence and guide future policy direction. Recent ECA studies in Sierra Leone and Nigeria showed that, although there is increasing transformation of policy, both legislative and regulatory frameworks are lagging behind in terms of responding to convergence. To this end, a growing number of Governments and regional institutions are reviewing their frameworks to adequately respond to the challenges of convergence. At the sub-regional level, ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) has carried out a study on the harmonisation of policy and regulatory frameworks amongst ECOWAS member states. The table below, extracted from this study, shows briefly the actions taken regarding convergence by a select group of countries. African national regulators and regional regulatory associations need to deepen their understanding of convergence issues and establish channels of communication between telecommunications and media regulators to develop the rationale for addressing convergence through single regulatory framework. Enhancing regional integration Africa needs to strengthen the harmonisation among national systems and build the relatively small market in order to maximise the opportunities for economies of scale and market integration. A recent ECA assessment of African integration shows, though progress has been mixed, that some strides have been made in trade, transport, communication, energy, knowledge sharing, free movement of people, and peace and security. In relation to communications, the global revolution in telecommunication technology and the growing commercialisation and privatisation of national services has boosted inter-country connectivity in communication. Some regional economic communities – the Arab Maghreb Union, COMESA, ECOWAS, and SADC – are more connected than others. In knowledge sharing, successful cooperation occurs in early warning systems, agricultural research, and capacity building. The Southern African Centre for Cooperation in Agricultural Research and Training serves SADC, and organisations such as the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture and the International Water Management Institute are helping regional economic communities exchange information on best practices. Furthermore, there are a number of initiatives to interconnect the region such as the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) project, which was created to develop and implement a submarine cable system. EASSy will provide fibre optic telecommunications facilities linking the Eastern Coast of Africa to the Northern and Southern African international system gateways. Improved connectivity can help to address one of Africa’s key problems – lack of regional economic integration. The various economic groupings, the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) created to help address regional integration, are facing a crucial challenge because of the barriers between countries resulting from poor cross-border communications and other infrastructural problems. Better ICT infrastructure and communications links between countries in sub-regions are among the key components in building regional markets and reducing the divisions between common cultures separated by borders. Regional communications-based integration efforts focus on policy convergence, physical facilities, connectivity, and exchange programmes, particularly in broadcasting. The goals are to spur growth of trade and finance and to reduce production and service costs by enhancing the accessibility and affordability of information to link Africa regionally and with the rest of the world. Our recent assessment shows that the communication networks of the regional economic communities are at different stages of regional integration. The ECOWAS network has developed significantly under the Pan-African Telecommunications Network programme of the African Union and ECOWAS Intelcom. By contrast, UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union or UEMOA from its French name, Union économique et monétaire ouest-africaine) hardly takes advantage of interstate connection possibilities, lacks adequate direct links between members, routes significant interstate traffic through operators outside the region, and has a wide range of tariffs for interstate communications. COMESA is pursuing a regional telecommunications network to facilitate trade among its members. In 1999, SADC approved a regional backbone, the SADC Regional Information Infrastructure, to link its members with high capacity digital land and submarine routes using microwaves and fibre optic cables. Efforts to promote the ICT infrastructure development need to emphasise the convergence of national policies and actions to strengthen connectivity and improve the quality of services. The United Nations Transport and Communications Decade for Africa show that financing infrastructure networks require innovative approaches and appropriate policies for encouraging private participation. National budgets need to give priority to infrastructure, including appropriate allocation for their maintenance and rehabilitation.