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Regulating Africa’s data-highways

by Claudia Isabel Rittel

In brief

The last few metres are just the beginning. The next step is connecting the continent and clarifying user rights

The last few metres are just the beginning. The next step is connecting the continent and clarifying user rights

During its summit in February, the African Union (AU) declared information and communication technology (ICT) a new priority. The AU Commission was asked to draft a digital agenda. The main objective is to install infrastructure and put in place a political framework for universal access. The International Telecommunication Union will support these efforts.

At a time when nobody in Europe spoke of the topic, some people ­in Africa already used mobile phones to pay their bills. Today, this can also be done in Europe, but it is not the norm yet – and perhaps never will be. Mobile phones in Africa serve more functions than mere telephones. Many people use them to access the internet. In South Africa, for instance, twice as many people go online over their mobile than on their PC. In Europe and North America, the computer is still the most im­portant entry point to the world wide web.

“Internet and mobile telephony are closely intertwined in Africa,” says Geraldine de Bastion. She is a consultant for “newthinking”, a Berlin based agency for open-source strategies. The numbers are rising fast. In 2005, 138 million Africans had mobile phones, in 2008 the number had doubled to 370 million. Today the continent has 40 times more mobile phones than fixed-line devices. And, despite the ­financial crisis, the demand for mobile phones remains high.

As internet and communication are so important for economic development, the AU summit made the topic a priority in early February. The heads of state and government assigned the commission with the task of drafting a digital agenda. De Bastion considers this a “very positive ­development”. Never before have African policy makers addressed the topic with such urgency.

Support for the AU Commission will come from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which has dealt with technical aspects of telecommunication since 1865 and today acts as a special UN organisation. Internet is still a relatively new topic in the political arena: the World Summits on the Information Society in the years 2003 and 2005 brought the topic ­onto the African agenda. In 2006 and 2008, African ministers held advisory meeting on new technologies.

In the meantime, the expansion of broadband infrastructure is making progress. Last year, two new under-sea ­cables reached East Africa. A third cable is currently being installed. Submarine fibre-optic cables are the main routes of international data transfer: they transport most of the globally sent data and connect the continents. East Africa was long excluded from such connectivity (see D+C/E+Z ­­­7-8/2009).

Once the third line of the Eastern African Submarine Cable System is ­activated in August, high performance fibre-optic cables will surround the African continent. Some countries are already preparing for the new options: Zambia, Rwanda, Kenya and Ghana are extending their cable networks, for instance. Previously, the internet depended on satellite connections, which are slow and ex­pensive. The road to full connectivity all over the continent is still long, however. “It will take years,” says Geraldine de Bastion.

Besides the infrastructure, there are several technical and legal questions. Where should broadband installations cross borders? At which price should inner-continental data be transferred through other countries’ networks to the submarine data-highways? Should the market be regulated, and is there enough competition? How should the frequencies and transmission rates be allocated?

These and further questions are ­addressed by an ITU project. Its main ­objective lies in the harmonisation of ICT policies in Sub-Saharan Africa (HIPSSA). It is funded by the EU, and Germany is one of the donors. German Technical Co­operation (GTZ) is advising the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on regulation and the South African ­Development Community (SADC) on expanding access. In 2008, the ITU started the project by conducting a baseline study of existing national and regional policies and presenting the results to the heads of state and government at the AU summit.

The report shed light on existing regulations, as well as the responsible offices. The translation of these regulations into national law, however, is sometimes quite difficult, says Jean-Francois Le Bihan, who coordinates the ITU project. According to the ITU, the main areas of focus for regulators are the issuing of licenses, the management of frequencies and numbers, and internet security. On the other hand, the project addresses the questions of how to maximise the number of people with internet access and how to create a better linkage between states. So far, numerous phone calls to neighbouring countries still go via Europe because there are no direct lines. Using Europe’s infrastructure, however, is expensive and takes time. Proposals to improve matters have been made.

Another problem is that, due to ­monopolies, network prices are high in some areas. But that is changing. “In many countries you can actually observe competition grow,” says de Bastion. Nonetheless, things are not simple and do take time. In Nigeria, for instance, the government has been trying to sell the formerly state-controlled telephone company, Nitel, without success for nearly nine years.

Unlike the European Union, however, the African Union does not only have the levels of the nation states and the AU itself. Regional organisations play an important role in the regulation of telecommunication and they operate according to different models. While some advise their member states, others pass binding regulations. The ITU project aims to address all levels. It sees itself as a platform where all these topics can be discussed. “A stronger dialogue between African countries would be good,” remarks de Bastion. “Leading examples like South Africa could advise others, for instance”.

Claudia Isabel Rittel