3 May 2013

Ghana: National Broadband Policy Framework - Into the Policy Makers' Mind


Before I could get my response to a query I sent to the National Communication Authority (NCA), amongst which included "Does Ghana have a broadband policy in place?" the Minister of Communication, Dr. Omane-Boamah, had come out with the information that the government was soon to outdoor a Broadband Policy. As far back as 2004, a country like India had put in place a broadband policy framework to guide the country's industry. It is, however, better late than never; we are still within the United Nations digital target requirements that all countries come out by 2015 with their broadband policies.

Broadband definition across the world is a varied and relative concept. However, one is always sure that it is ubiquitous, "always on" interactive high speed connection. The ITU General Secretary, Dr. Hamadoun Toure, recently, in the 7th meeting of the Broadband Commission in Mexico City, stated that "in the 21st Century, affordable broadband access to the internet is becoming as vital to social and economic development, as networks like transport, water and power". He has, in this regard, requested the United Nations to adjust their broadband speed requirements. Indeed, the ITU latest broadband Commission 2012 report estimates that 10 % of the broadband penetration could boost a developing country like Ghana's GDP by 1.38 %.

In arriving at the broadband definition for a country, the "broadband ecosystem" factors are taken into consideration, and the four key elements are considered are: broadband and PC penetration level, access technology availability, services and content delivery. According to a recent ITU broadband Commission report on Ghana, fixed broadband (wired) subscription for 100 inhabitants for 2011 was 0.3%, and active broadband was 4.3% (Ituworld Telecommunication/ ICT indicator database). The percentage of Ghana's population using the internet was pegged at 14.1%

In their considerations, I expect policy makers to, not only consider available statistic and other data available to them, but also international protocols and guidelines in their benchmarking permutations. For instance, the ITU has a "dream big" policy recommendation that broadband access target in the world to be a minimum of 20 mbps by 2020, and at a cheaper rate of $20 per month.

I expect a consultative national policy that resonates national aspirations, practical and forward looking - A policy framework of growth path, with strategic dual track approach indicating clear guidelines to making broadband a universal access/service in the medium to long term. It can be modeled on the India gradual approach. The new "National Telecom Policy 2012" of India has pegged the broadband speed from 256 Kbps to 512kbps, with a growth path by 2015 of 2mbps, 20mbps 2020, and 100mbps thereafter.

I envision the policy document to be launched by the President, underlying his firmest of assurance of his full commitment to driving a "high speed Broadband Ghana" roadmap. The Obama administration proposed the "National Broadband Plan" in 2010, in an effort to speed up broadband penetration in the US.

To carry out this with this conviction, an executive order to accelerate the construction of broadband infrastructure throughout the US was released. A proposed body, "Broadband strategy Council", is to coordinate its plan activities. In Australia, the government has established the Ministry of Broadband Communication and Digital Economy with similar plans to oversee its broadband plan - same in the UK and other parts of the world. These scenarios are to highlight the broadband movement across the world, and Ghana having benefit of these models of practices can't afford to a cause of action. This is a position that, I agree, shall take the firmest of political wills, and I invite the President to indicate his personal interest.

The increase in high capacity networks is the veritable game-changer, and I expect the government to initiate an ambitious plan to invite investment in the access infrastructure networks to drive growth in the sector, with appropriate incentives to encourage widespread investor interest. I am aware of the national Fiber Optic Ring Broadband Infrastructure Project that is expected to connect the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDA) and district capitals to enhance e-government and other government services. There are also four landing sites as yet involving four operators - Vodafone SAT-3, Main One, Glo One, MTN WACS, and the yet to arrive Espresso ACE .These redundant fiber infrastructure could be aggregated for meaningful national development. As yet, Vodafone (then Ghana Telecom) is the main licensed operator to deliver last mile services, and will use its "priori" to bully other operators from deploying services to the general public. I expect policy makers to come out with clear policy guidelines recommending the establishment of a separate body to harmonise, regulate and license "Ghana Broadband infrastructure" for national development. This will allow the NCA to focus on its core mandate. Elsewhere in the world, special attention has been given to broadband infrastructure, and it is ready information for policy thinkers to verify. This will allow for an even ground with the right environment for fair competition, and drive down prices from insane levels, better services, and meet out national aspirations. Since the copper loop infrastructure has seen a continuous downward trend in penetration across the world, the government should be bold to come out with guidelines to make fiber optic infrastructure the basic last mile design requirement for new estate development and business premises. This is where Fiber to the Curb (FTTC) comes in handy to deliver "true" broadband. This shall require licensing of such providers.

I call for a through harmonisation and reallocation of frequency spectrum to take advantage of the spiraling effect of the wireless technology that is taking the world by storm. We need not be only technology neutral, but should also encourage other available technologies like mobile satellite services (MSS), Broadband wireless access-BWA (and, as I understand, three companies have been licensed) amongst others. I expect that the migration of the television stations to the digital terrestrial platform will release and produce additional frequency spectrum to what has come to be known as the "digital dividend', to enable the launch of 4G technologies like LTE, which is a raw material for high speed data service and applications.

I expect policymakers to take cognisance of the fact that the adoption of smart phones, ipad/tablet and notebooks, coupled with other proliferation of mobile friendly applications on the Ghanaian market, means we are going to demand more data traffic for our IP and multimedia contents like video streaming, digital TV, triple play, etc.

It has been said on several platforms that it is not voice that would determine the Average Revenue per User (ARPU) for operators, but data services. In fact, when I was in India for my telecom training, I read a chilling newspaper item by the Minister of Communication & IT, Kapil Sibal, at a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Broadband Summit, and I quote him: "At the moment, revenue of industry depends on voice; it is time that the industry decides to move in a direction where revenues come from data, and not from voice". He continued: "The industry must move in that direction (making voice free), so that in years to come, talking to each other should not be taxed. There should be no charge for talking to each other." In essence, the future is data! I call for an independent, fair and firm regulator that shall protect customers from operator cartels and manipulation. Recently, an operator with a significant market power (SMP) in the basic telephones services, and considered a "priori" in the "Ghana Telecom Policy 2005" arbitrarily increased its fixed broadband price to almost 100 hundred percent, and in addition, capped the capacity allocated to customers.

There was a national outcry, but the regulator was not available to respond to customer concerns. Moving forward, and as data shall drive the sector, and well aware of quality of service challenges, I expect policymakers to come out with clear guidelines that set and monitor quality of service targets with the telecom players. Customers demand an end to their deceptive and propaganda mantra of "up to" service speed that customers do not have any way of verifying its authenticity.

Policymakers should encourage indigenous entrepreneurs in the telecommunication sector like RLG, and others, with incentives to find their feet on the slanted terrain of the telecommunication market. I also expect some policy on gender equity, especially focusing on the female folks.

I should perhaps offer this advice to the policymakers to, as early as practical, review and amend the current outdated telecom policy document 2005 to respond to current trends. In terms of the current market dynamics, it is begging for a review.

In fact, it should be the source from which all information and communication technology legislation, act, and policies like the current broadband policy under discussion, should flow from; it should be the "mother" of all ICT matters, including issues related to electromagnetic frequency radiation (EMF), safe energy system, right of way (ROW) guidelines documents, etc.

For instance, the current telecommunication policy had some clear guidelines establishing bodies like NITA, GIFTEL, etc, but from which comes the broadband policy document? There is no congruity. Of course, it can stand on its own, but we are talking about a "coherent whole" of a national telecommunication policy.

Currently, a lot of available changes on the telecom front do not have any reference from the telecom policy. In the world of information and telecommunication technology environment, national telecom policies should be dynamic and forward looking. Anyone who picks the telecom policy document should know any information about the telecommunication ecosystem of Ghana telecom. Some detailed information may require additional documents, and that should be easy to come by.

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