Exclusive interview with Dr. Osei DARKWA (GTUC)
COMMUNICATIONS & STRATEGIES No. 86, 2nd quarter 2012
Development of ICT in Africa
Summary : While the very rapid, although uneven, expansion of mobile telecommunication networks on the African continent is supporting a variety of services including voice, text messaging and Internet access, there is great variety in market structures, regulatory arrangements, and the way applications and services are being rolled out. This special issue is concerned with the way these technologies are contributing to economic and social development and with the barriers that countries in the region face as they seek to reap the benefits of increasing connectivity for their business communities, entrepreneurs and citizens. The papers analyse the challenges and barriers, as well as the opportunities, in the wake of the spread of mobile networks in the region based on experiences at the country level using aggregate data and at the within country level using qualitative data. Several papers show how infrastructure investment and regulation intersect with opportunities provided by voice services and data applications once networks are extended and offer affordable connectivity.
Exclusive Interview with Osei DARKWA
President of Ghana Telecom University College (GTUC)
Conducted by Anders HENTEN (Aalborg University, Copenhagen)
C&S: Let's start with the mobile development. How do you see the mobile development in the overall development of ICT and telecoms in Africa?
Osei DARKWA: I obviously think that it's a very positive development that we have seen in mobile communications. This has provided access to communications for much larger parts of society. People do not anymore have to wait for a communication line as they did previously with fixed line communications. One could say that we have leapfrogged fixed line communications.
But is there a need for fixed communications also to develop or is mobile communications the only important avenue? This issue pertains mainly to the development of broadband.
We have to differentiate here: whether we talk about the access or the backbone networks. Fiber is used in the backbones, but access is mainly mobile. But yes, broadband is the only reason for developing fixed line communications in the access network. Apart from this, it's not really necessary. Internet can also be accessed via mobile communications. It's only because of the quality of service of mobile Internet access and because the support system is not always reliable that fixed broadband has a role to play.
How is it then with the development of mobile broadband for instance in your own country Ghana?
In Ghana there are presently 6 mobile operators and there is stiff competition. We, therefore, see a great many innovations. However, competition is not equally tough in all African countries. In other countries, there are fewer operators. In Ghana, all 6 operators actually offer mobile broadband. However, use of it is not that high yet. I'd say that around 80% only use voice and texting, but there is absolutely progress in the use of mobile broadband a development which is primarily facilitated by the diffusion of smartphones.
Do you see Internet in Africa developing as mobile communications have done?
Internet is the next great wave of communication developments in Africa. It will, as I have already emphasized, mostly take place based on mobile networks. There are, however, pricing and reliability issues that need to be solved. But fixed network elements are also very important for Internet developments. We have in Ghana a national fiber backbone, and almost all mobile operators have their own fiber ring. This helps offering Internet at a sufficiently high quality also on mobile connections.
One of the characteristics of the mobile development in Africa is that it has quickly been coupled with broader societal needs and developments such as education and health. How do you see this development unfolding?
There is certainly a great interest in the applications of e-services in many different fields, especially e-health, e-learning and, of course, also e-commerce. And, as mobile is the preferred mode of communication, m-health, m-learning, etc. are important areas to be developed. Indeed, a large number of initiatives have been taken especially in the banking and money transfer area. But development in most African countries is still relatively slow although some countries have taken a fast leap forward. The basic reason for the relatively slow development is the low take-up of broadband. When accessing Internet, most people will still do it from their workplace or at an Internet café. In Ghana, only a small percentage of people accessing Internet will do it from home. The many different potential societal applications of mobile Internet are, therefore, mostly at the planning stage. But the potential is there, and there is also a potential for leaping quickly forward to develop the many useful applications of mobile communications.
In spite of the impressive development of mobile communications, there are still segments of the population which are not yet connected. What needs to be done to reach these parts of the population?
Most African societies are predominantly rural societies. Some 60% of populations live in small communities doing farming in the countryside. This is a difficulty as the spread of populations raises the investment costs and as the ability to pay is rather low. This is, however, an issue which has been on the policy agenda for quite some time in the individual countries as well as internationally with initiatives from World Bank, ITU, the Economic Commission for Africa, etc. In Ghana, one percent of mobile operators' revenues are collected bi-annually to support the provision of infrastructure in rural areas. But I also think that creating awareness is important. Mobile phones are mostly used for voice communications, and there is also need to create awareness that mobile communications can be used for data as well. Another issue is related to the costs. Using mobile broadband services is costly for rural families. Also, the infrastructure needs to be in place. But mobile broadband is advancing as mentioned. People moreover need terminals. But actually, mobile phones are often not bought by those who use them. For rural users, phones will often be bought by relatives in the cities and then sent to villages in the countryside. But to sum this up: awareness, costs, and infrastructure are crucial elements to look at when aiming at extending communications to remote rural areas.
A much debated topic has been the role of telecenters. How do you see the role of telecenters in reaching the poorest segments of society?
This is a notion that has been around for a long time and it has also been funded by international organizations in different countries. In Ghana, the Ministry of Communications has taken the initiative to construct more than 200 Community Information Centers. And, in for example Senegal and Uganda, there are significant telecenter developments. But I don't think this is the main avenue for the development of communications in Africa in general. The main avenue is the still wider diffusion of mobile communications and telecenters are only a supplement to this main development in reaching those that are still not connected.
Returning to the infrastructure issues: How has the international economic crisis affected the investments of operators in the infrastructural roll-out?
There may have been some effect, but it's not significant. African countries are to different extents linked to the international economy, but the crisis has not really affected the investment side of communication developments. One could say that the effects are more indirect in the sense that Africans living in other parts of the world send remittances to their relatives back home. Here, the crisis has affected the situation as far less money is being sent home. One could say that it's more on the demand side that the international economic crisis has impacted on the telecoms development. In other areas, in Ghana especially the oil area, there has been a great influx of foreign investments, and Chinese investments are all over. But in the telecoms area, the implications have mostly been indirect.
If we look at the regulatory framework, where do you see the greatest challenges for a continued development of the telecoms infrastructure? Are there any regulatory issues that must be addressed?
The situation of course varies in different countries. But yes, there are regulatory questions that need to be addressed. In my country Ghana, many of the telecommunication policies are obsolete. This applies to frequencies as well as infrastructure policies in general. They need to be reviewed. We have, for example, seen the development of VoIP, where there are regulatory obstacles, which set the country back. Technology developments have in different cases gone past the regulatory framework, and this needs to be looked into. The problem is that there is not sufficient pressure from advocacy groups. They are not strong enough and the pace of regulatory development is too slow.
How effective are the regulatory institutions?
For the regulatory institution that I know best, namely the one in Ghana, I'd say that it is relatively effective. But there are challenges regarding the general policy development related to fast changing technologies. The implementation of number portability has, as an example, worked well, and if we take the broadcast area, the transition to digital broadcast has also been successful. But the challenge is the general policy development in following up on new technology trends.
Is there a necessity for public investments in the infrastructure or are private investors/operators sufficient for a continued development?
Yes, I think that there is a need for public investments in the sector. The technologies are changing very quickly, and there is a need for countries to be on top of this development so to say. In Ghana, a national fiber backbone was built from public money provided via a loan from China. There is also public money in the building of a national data center. In general terms, there needs to be a co-operation between the private sector and the public sector in this area. Most of the infrastructure will be built with private money, but there are specific fields where public investments are necessary.
How do you see the prospects in regional cooperation, for instance in the Ecowas area? Does such regional cooperation have any effect on ICT development?
There is a movement in that direction and there have also been initiatives to that effect for many years, for instance the ideas about creating a common currency in the West-African area. Ecowas is a good example of this. But one has to admit that this has often been more of a 'taking shop'. Many issues also in the area of communications and IT have been taken up. But it's more on the conceptualization level than the implementation level. But then again, there are common backbone initiatives, and the Economic Commission for Africa has also been pushing for regional initiatives.
When looking 10 years ahead, which will be the most important issues on the ICT and telecoms agenda?
The most important issue for the coming period will be the development of broadband. The access part of this will mainly be mobile, but the development of fixed backbones is part of it. So, mobile is the important development avenue, and here the crucial elements are the lowering of costs for the operators as well as the users. Quality of service is also a central issue. And then, there is the whole discussion concerning the many applications in health, education, banking, etc. I must say that I'm rather optimistic taking the last 10 years into account. It's been an impressive development in many ways.
Osei Kofi DARKWA was appointed first Principal of Ghana Telecom University College (GTUC) on November 16, 2004. He assumed this leadership position after more than two decades of higher education, administrative, consultative and managerial experience in Norway, the United States, and his home country, Ghana. Dr. Darkwa is an accomplished leader, an effective speaker, a writer par excellence, a true visionary and a holder of an impressive record of academic and research accomplishment. Notably he has written well over 120 articles on various ICT topics which have been published in the Ghanaian Times between May, 2006 and July, 2008. Dr Darkwa has published numerous papers and articles on the Internet and in peer-reviewed journals on ICT development in Africa. He has written on topics such as distance education, telematics, multipurpose community telecenters, and virtual institution building. He has participated in various television and radio programmes and delivered lectures on ICT that cut across various topics across the country and beyond. Dr Darkwa has played a leadership and pioneering role in the community informatics movement as well as a key role in ICT capacity building, education and training. He has membership with key ICT-oriented organization.
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