Tue, 20 Dec 2011 Opinions

Is it possible for every Ghanaian to have access to broadband access at home?

By Idongesit Williams

By Mr. I. Williams, CMI AAU, Denmark
“In the 21st century, affordable ubiquitous broadband networks will be as critical to social and economic prosperity as networks like transport, water and power” Dr. Hamadoun I. Toure, Secretary General ITU.

Few days ago I was chatting with a friend and in the course of our conversation she mentioned this phrase. 'In the last century…..'. When I heard that phrase, my mind went back to the 19th century. When I asked which particular year she referred to, she mentioned the “1990's”. That was when it dawned on me that we aren't in the 20th century any longer. We are eleven years into the 21st century. Hence when I read this statement by Dr. Toure, it dawned on me that we are in the midst of the century of manifestation to his statement. However, Mr. Toure made this statement this century in 2008.

As an ICT researcher, I decided to do a small research into how countries view the development of broadband in their domain. In the course of researching I came in contact with this statement from ITU.

"By 2010, some 82 countries around the world – from Afghanistan to the United States, Australia to Malawi, and Chile to Slovenia – had adopted or planned to adopt a national broadband strategy" (ITU 2011).

This is validating Mr Toure's assertion and countries are taking it seriously. In 2008, developing a national broadband strategy was one of the aspects in the then Senator Barak Obama's campaign promises. Few days ago, I came in contact with the US draft national broadband plan. Australia developed theirs in 2004, and in 2008 they had an update. In the advanced countries represented in the OECD block, there has been this progressive move from just developing infrastructure to enable the Universal Access of Broadband to the household delivery of broadband penetration, which is more of Universal service delivery. In countries like Germany, France, Denmark, etc, there has been a progressive universal service delivery of broadband at different thresh speeds. In the EU there is the universal access of 256kbps, however, getting household penetration especially in their rural areas has been the problem. They don't have the problem of service delivery but more of service adoption in these areas. Hence they are upgrading their broadband strategies to accommodate infrastructure delivery that will enable these services to be delivered at a price the rural dwellers will be willing to pay. It's a bit difficult to convince someone who already has access to mobile or fixed line telephony to upgrade to broadband internet speeds that will enable him or her access the world with greater bits of streams of data. Most don't feel they need it. Hence these governments are working to make sure these services are delivered at household levels. Depending on the market conditions, this is done via regulatory oversight, different evolutions of Public Private Partnerships and other market intervention approaches.

African countries have not been left out of this race of developing broadband strategies. Ghana, Egypt, South Africa, Malawi, Guinea etc are some countries that have been able to put pen on paper in terms of developing broadband strategies. Nigeria recently had a consultative forum on developing their own broadband strategy. Ghana at the moment has a draft broadband strategy. In most of the African broadband strategy focus is places on broadband infrastructure development and consolidation, possible regulatory measures to enhance the development of broadband and finally market intervention mechanisms that will sustain the broadband market.

Quite unlike their western counterparts, focus is not placed on household penetration as such but on access to the broadband service. This is because of the general prevailing economic situations in many African countries. Hence they believe that the pervasive nature of Next Generation Networks (NGN) of which broadband is transmitted will enable a new information and knowledge economy that will enable the feasibility of the end results of ICT for Development (ICT4D) policies. With this though in mind, it is necessary to take the approach to broadband development step by step.

This background leads to a very important question. Is it possible for everyone to have access to broadband?

This is a very important question especially in Africa bearing in mind the economic and geographical difficulties of some isolated rural areas. The high cost of deploying broadband in non-commercial viable areas makes this question very important. In many countries of the world, the 3G technology which enables broadband connectivity on mobile telephony is not available in every area of the country. 3G, 3.5G and other evolution standards of mobile technology are only available in cities and places where the mobile telephone companies can recoup cost. It makes sense because the rural dweller doesn't make that much calls and they are sparsely populated, hence the call traffic they generate is not enough to pay for the daily servicing of the tower (mast) which serves them. And still on the network operator, they are facing competition from new and dynamic new entrants; hence they are forced to upgrade even when they have not recouped the cost of the investment they ploughed into developing the previous technology. The rapid innovation in technology has made the delivery of telecommunication services a risky investment.

These are valid arguments. However if one could remember in the not too distant past, last century as my friend would call it, no one ever believed that mobile telephony would be available for all. It was a mark of wealth and luxury. However as the liberalization in the telecommunication section in the 1990's continued to evolve, markets were opened new competitors were able to come in with new, dynamic and affordable innovations for mobile technology. Yes these didn't help boost mobile telephony until the 'pre-paid' plan was introduced. Suddenly poor people could see themselves own mobile telephones and make calls on them without owing the network operator. If you calculate the cost they spend, it's almost the same as the 'Postpaid' service, but they were not placed in a box of having to make obligatory payments, they were released from the box of making obligatory payments. The customer was made 'king'. Even at this rate the telecom operator earned more than he would have made if he relied on Post-paid customers only.

What's the logic here? It is simple; a good policy will enable the operator to come up with business models that will enable the operator make more money by covering more people and the government will then reach more people. This is possible with a good broadband strategy. Nothing is impossible and hence everyone in a country, Ghana inclusive can have access to broadband.

You may ask? What is the picture of the end result of a broadband policy? This quote from ITU is one that I think answers the question?

“National broadband policies and plans are clearly focusing on the benefits of building nationwide broadband infrastructure to provide public services online – including e-health, e-education and e-government.”(ITU 2011)

With this quote it is now clear why Dr. Toure equated broadband to everyday public utility.

In Ghana the Ghana Connect team has been spearheading the move towards developing a National broadband Strategy for Ghana. Unfortunately, nothing much has been heard publicly from the side of the Government on how they see the plan and what they intend to do. Maybe something is being done privately. It is good that benefit of doubt is given. In Egypt and South Africa, the governments are very much involved in the redrafting of the draft broadband strategy to turn it into a policy instrument. So if the Government is not involved actively, I think it is time something is done to push the policy from its draft status to a working policy.

I and my colleague, Mrs Y. Botwe, did carry out a SWOT analysis of the Ghana Broadband strategy. In this research, we used the Australian, Finland, Indian and Pakistani broadband strategies as a mirror to the draft strategy and we came up with some conclusions. Recently, we have published the research into a book. The reason for publishing it is to paint the strides made by Ghana in developing broadband and to also stimulate the thought of Ghanaian policy makers, academics, civil society members etc. on what more can be added as an improvement to the strategy.

The book is published by Grin Publishing Germany. It can be accessed online using the following link. Here you can either order the hard or soft copy of the book.

We want further research carried out into how we can improve our broadband strategy. We also would love to read books written by you, contributing to broadband development in Ghana.

The answer to the title of this article is: yes, it is possible for every Ghanaian to have access to broadband. All you need is a good broadband strategy and a dedicated implementation process.

Mr. I. Williams is a PhD Student with CMI, Aalborg University Copenhagen Denmark. He is doing his PhD research in collaboration with Ghana Telecom University College, Accra

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