A Pan-African ICT regulatory agency, dealing specifically with ICT issues with a continent-wide bearing, could help reduce the costs of communications to African governments, businesses and individuals. This is the view of Dr Ekwow Spio-Garbrah, CEO of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO).
Such a continental body would need the full blessing of the African Union, the African Telecommunications Union and the NEPAD E-Africa Commission (which are currently the major players on the African continental ICT scene) and should be an independent agency that would draw its key strengths from Africa's regulatory authorities and agencies, said the CEO. Dr Spio-Garbrah noted that his proposal is not new and is merely a repetition of a similar recommendation he made at another conference in Johannesburg in 1998 when he was then Minister of Communications of Ghana.
The CTO head took as his example satellite communications, a critical element of Africa's communications infrastructure mix, alongside mobile, wireless, copper and fibre. He claimed that satellite industry officials often saw themselves as in competition with these other ICT platforms when they should be seeing themselves as a complementary means of bringing affordable and efficient communications to a continent in dire need of this for its development, especially to meet the Millennium Development Goals.
Millennium Development Goals
He argued that with the completion of the second-phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis and the endorsement of Commonwealth Heads of State of a Malta Declaration on the Digital Divide and a Commonwealth Action Programme for the Digital Divide, most African countries now sought the best and cheapest means of effective communication. For many landlocked African countries - and for those with large land masses and sparse far-flung populations - satellite communications remained the most viable means of bringing news, information, education, entertainment and knowledge to rural people.
Dr Spio-Garbrah noted that, so far, especially through VSAT, many satellite providers have made a good living by attending to the specialised needs of the financial services, oil and gas, mining and military and defence establishments, as well as to the maritime sector through Inmarsat. However, recent fall-outs from the privatisation of Inmarsat and Intelsat have raised serious questions among African countries regarding the Lifeline Connectivity Obligations of these once inter-governmental organisations and the relatively small and weak regulatory bodies - ITSO and IMSO - that were spawned by their privatisation.
Tracing briefly the history of satellite communications to the days of the Russian Sputnik, Telstar and Syncom of the 1960s, the CTO head recognised that satellite communications had come a very long way. Its future growth in Africa depended very much on the general growth of African economies and the concomitant demand for ICT services, the extent to which satellite infrastructure could be interoperable both within the satellite industry and with other forms of communication , and the need to realise that currently it is the mobile sector that has made the greatest inroads in bringing connectivity to the mass of African people.
According to Dr Spio-Garbrah, it is therefore particularly important that the satellite industry finds ways to collaborate and partner with the mobile sector: "Except for a very few specialised industries in very remote areas that are not connected by mobile telephony, a US$1,000 satellite mobile handset cannot easily compete with the sub-US$30 mobile handsets that are on the horizon for the average user", he said. Satellite operators still prefer average revenues per users (ARPUs) per month in the thousands of dollars while the mobile sector has proven that it is possible to make money on less than US$10 dollars of ARPU.
Overcoming the regulatory nightmare
Dr Spio-Garbrah stated that African governments needed to pay attention to the concept of a Pan-African regulatory agency so as to avoid the current situation where satellite operators in Africa with large footprints of their coverage face the herculean regulatory hurdle of having to visit numerous African states and their regulatory agencies just to obtain operating licences and approval for their equipment and terminals. He argued that for certain categories of satellite provision a continental agency could reduce costs of operators.
What the speaker did admit, however, was that some African regulatory agencies - having been recently created and enjoying their new-found power - would not be in a hurry to cede some of their authority to the proposed continental body, even if they recognised that this was in Africa's larger interest.Fibre-optic an area for cooperation
The CTO head noted that in the area of fibre-optic cabling a number of African governments, operators and regulators are able to come together to take decisions intended to be good for the continent. He commended the countries, operators and agencies involved in promoting the EASSy fibre cable around the East and Southern coasts of Africa, to complement the SAT-3 cable that is currently serving the western and south-western coasts, as well as the backhaul linkages to landlocked countries, remarking that their efforts were a good example of Pan-African collaboration.
He hoped, however, that they would embrace the "Open Access" principles being currently canvassed by NEPAD and enable as many possible investors and operators to become involved in the project. He disclosed that the CTO is itself offering consultancy and advisory services to NEPAD under a World Bank contract to help facilitate this process. He also expressed the wish that satellite industry officials would take a good look at this model for collaboration and consider ways of "coming down to earth" and getting involved in those projects which could have various points of inter-linkages with the satellite industry, rather than see such submarine or terrestrial projects as competition or see themselves as "entities which operate only in the ethereal skies".
Making references to the CTO, he stated that as a unique inter-governmental organisation owned simultaneously by governments, regulators, operating and manufacturing companies, the CTO is able to take a very neutral view of various technologies and to make recommendations to its member entities on what is best for their citizens and peoples. Dr Spio-Garbrah argued that with increasing demands for distance learning, telemedicine, e-government, e-commerce and e-agriculture, there will be considerable room for the satellite industry to collaborate with content providers to enable African countries to make developmental progress.
Training and capacity building stumbling blocks
In this regard, he stated that training and capacity building, not just in ICT applications but in a large variety of technical fields remains one of the major stumbling blocks to Africa's development. He urged satellite and other ICT providers in Africa to continually examine ways in which they can assist Africa's public and private sectors to bridge the digital divide, especially in rural areas.
He concluded by saying that the CTO, with its programmes in research and studies, training and capacity building, knowledge-sharing seminars, workshops and conferences is ready to work in partnership with other ICT entities, especially the satellite industry, to bring more rapid development to Africa.