Pushing access frontiers in Africa

by david.nunes
Abdoulkarim SoumailaIssue:AME 2013
Article no.:1
Topic:Pushing access frontiers in Africa
Author:Abdoulkarim Soumaila
Title:Secretary General
Organisation:African Telecommunications Union (ATU)
PDF size:188KB

About author

Mr. Abdoulkarim Soumaila is the Secretary General of African Telecommunications Union (ATU) since January, 2011. Before joining ATU, he was the Director of Posts, Telecommunications and New Technologies then Director of Information Technologies at the Ministry of Communication, New Information Technologies and Culture in Niger from 2007 to 2010.

Mr. Abdoulkarim Soumaila holds a Master of Science in Operational Telecommunications from the University of Coventry, England and a Telecommunications Application Diploma from National Institute of Posts and Telecommunication in Rabat, Morocco.

Article abstract

ICT, especially mobile broadband access, is a crucial driver of social-economic growth in Africa. Given this correlation between economic growth and access to ICTs, African countries have been cooperating to expand access ICTs, particularly mobile broadband. It is hoped that mobile broadband access will soon reach levels equivalent to those for voice and basic text services. The ATU plays a vital role integrating regional markets by fostering policy and regulatory harmonization to create a larger common market for ICTs

Full Article

Pushing access frontiers in Africa
by Abdoulkarim Soumaila, Secretary General, African Telecommunications Union (ATU)
Many African countries have experienced impressive economic growth in the past decade particularly in the last five years or so. Specifically, many African countries even in their developing status, have recorded far better annual economic growths in comparison to many developed countries. Foreign Direct Investment inflows to the continent have increased. Trade between Africa and the rest of the world is growing in particular Asia with China taking the lead. Conditions for private capital investment are more favorable today compared to twenty years ago as most economies have been opened up and the investment climate has improved. This has resulted in significant continental, regional and local investment flows in all key sectors notably Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), finance, transport, health, education, etc. The future is bright.
In today’s world there is a wide range of new technologies available for increasing the productivity and diversity of African economies. The stock of knowledge and related innovations available to African countries is growing. Technological diversity and convergence make it relatively easy and cheaper to access and apply knowledge to add value to Africa’s natural resources. Technology is breaking barriers to capital access and movement. Technological developments associated with mobile telephony make it possible to move or transfer capital to rural areas and across most of Africa in seconds.
The drivers of notable growths may be many. However, the single most important driver that stands out is that of access to and use of ICTs on the continent. Indeed the correlation between the introduction and use of ICTs and the impressive economic growth cannot be doubted. ICTs has been the bedrock upon which all key sectors have thrived: capital flows now move at the ‘speed of light’, payments for services and goods are now made at the speed of light, security and general law and order is now coordinated at the speed of light, medical service delivery is now coordinated at the speed of light, while education is now accessible at the speed of light, and more importantly governments (legislature, judiciary and executives) are now ‘governing’ at the speed of light. On the social front, people of all statuses, gender, location, and so on are now socializing at the speed of light via social media. Access to news and information for that crucial informed decision is now at the speed of light. The list is endless.
Despite the above outlined access to and use of ICTs as a crucial driver for social-economic growth, evidently more needs to be done. While voice and basic text (SMS) connectivity is at appreciable levels in Africa, broadband and in particular mobile broadband is far too low. If there is an access frontier which needs to be pushed, then it is the mobile broadband frontier. In recognition of this, Africa pushed for the second digital dividend at the 2012 World Radiocommunication Conference so as to have the requisite radio spectrum resource for mobile broadband in Africa. One of Africa’s Regional initiative as adopted at the World Telecommunication Development Conference of 2010 (WTDC-10), include harmonisation in the use of the digital dividend spectrum to improve broadband connectivity and ATU has been very active in enhancing its consultative, coordination and harmonization approach in the continental spectrum management. There are however many others steps Africa is undertaking to push the mobile broadband frontier.
Governments are no longer the main or sole agents of economic activities. There is also growth in numbers and diversity of knowledge, financial and technical institutions in the continent. There is a growing determination by many African countries to improve and/or develop their institutions for scientific research and promote technological innovation. This is manifested in the ongoing efforts by countries to restructure their organizations, formulate new science and technology policies, and in many cases, develop science and technology strategies. Some of these efforts are receiving international support in the form of funding and technical assistance.
Furthermore, there has been a renewed focus on accelerating regional economic and political integration. African countries have been able to integrate their economies through institutional arrangements such as the Regional Economic Communities (RECs). Regional economic integration makes it possible for African countries to pool their economic diversity and assets together and build bigger markets as well as trading blocs. It is also an important mechanism for assembling resources for the production of regional public goods. The EAC has established Community Broadband Information Infrastructure (EAC-BIN). Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has established a desk dedicated to science and technology and has finalized a protocol to establish Community Information Infrastructure. ECOWAS on the other hand has designed a framework for regional broadband initiative. Central Africa has a project on broadband connectivity and ICT development. These are indicative of what countries can do through regional economic integration to foster technological innovation.
Many African leaders and the international community are increasingly recognizing that Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) are critical for the transformation of economies, reduction of poverty, attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and integration of the continent into the global knowledge economy. For example in January 2007, African leaders dedicated their African Union (AU) Summit to discussing ways to promote the development and application of science and technology for development. Through the AU and NEPAD, a high level council of ministers of science and technology was established in 2003, and since then a number of framework programmes have been developed. Development agencies such as the AfDB and international institutions such as the World Bank and UNESCO have designed frameworks to guide their support to Africa’s scientific and technological development. These efforts have increased financial resources for research and innovation activities in Africa. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) of Tunis, 2005 while reaffirming its commitment to best possible benefit from the capacities and the potential of the ICT, invited all the governments to adopt the ICT for sustainable development while strengthening national, regional and international cooperation. The African Union in pursuit of this commitment in 2011, launched for the first time the African ICT week dedicated to the improvement of life conditions in Africa and its integration in the knowledge society so as to fulfill the Millennium development goals.
Technological Readiness measures the ability with which an economy adopts existing technologies to enhance the productivity of its industries. It is an assessment of a country’s preparedness to procure, absorb and use technology. Technological readiness is determined based on factors such as firm-level technology absorption, laws relating to information and communication technologies, Foreign Direct Investment and technology transfer, personal computers per 100 inhabitants, and internet users and mobile phone subscribers. It is separate from innovation capacity, which is about the ability of a country to expand the frontiers of knowledge and create new technology through innovative products and services.
Technological innovation is important for countries with diminishing possibilities of adopting and using existing technologies. In these circumstances, firms cannot increase their productivity by relying on or using existing technologies or by merely undertaking incremental innovations. They must push the frontiers of knowledge and create cutting-edge products and processes in order to be competitive. This has enhanced the firm’s participation in the ever evolving technology.
Given the evident correlation between economic growth and access and use of ICTs, many African countries, regionally and as a continent, are pushing the access frontier to ICTs, particularly mobile broadband. It is hoped that with the renewed drive in this quest, mobile broadband will soon be at appreciable levels as the case is with voice and basic text for even greater social-economic growth and inclusion and wellbeing. ATU as the continental body in the area of telecommunications continues to play a vital role in the Integration of regional markets by fostering policy and regulatory harmonization to create larger common markets from ICT based on regional economic communities.

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