The growth of the telecommunications sector in Nigeria and indeed in sub-sahara Africa in the last ten years has been impressive. In Nigeria for example, tele-density has risen from 0.44% (about 400 thousand active lines) in 2001 to 72% (just over 100 million active) in 2012. This growth was achieved due to increased competition in the telecommunication market when the Nigerian communications Commission licensed four (4) new mobile operators to offer mobile services, in addition to the government controlled incumbent, which hitherto accounted for about 95% of all active phone lines in the country.
Executive Vice Chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission
Replicating this growth in voice telephony penetration to data penetration requires a whole new strategy as well as learning gained from the rollout of the voice telephony services.
The economic impact of broadband penetration has been found to be quite impressive, World Bank studies show, quite conclusively, that in low and middle –income countries (which many developing countries fall under), every 10% percentage point increase in broadband penetration accelerate economic growth by 1.38 percentage points. This impact is greater in mid to low income countries than what is obtainable in high‐income Countries and equally greater than the impact of any other telecommunication service.
Notwithstanding the benefits that have been associated with broadband, in developing countries it has to be understood that broadband for all is a medium to long term strategy and the main beneficiaries, in the short term, of the broadband revolution will be businesses. Because broadband networks need to generate traffic to lower their costs and increase their profitability, and in light of the fact that broadband is an ecosystem in which users play a central role, stimulating demand is very important as this will provide the means for further expansion of broadband services and increase penetration.
In Africa, broadband penetration is less than 5%, hence there is a huge opportunity for growth and subsequent increase in penetration to un-served and underserved areas and populations. Government or private enterprise alone cannot ensure universal access to broadband services. To make this possible, government and private sector need to collaborate. Several factors will determine how successful broadband rollout in Africa and indeed in other developing countries will be. Some of these factors include:
Importance of having an overall plan to rollout broadband at a national level in consultation with industry;
Political backing at the very top levels to ensure broadband rollout. This will ensure bureaucratic bottlenecks and access rights are speedily addressed;
All ministries and government departments must work in a synchronous manner;
Required spectrum is made available. Especially spectrum that provides the biggest advantage in terms of coverage, capacity and wide adoption across the globe to provide the biggest economies of scale advantages for devices and equipment utilizing these spectrum and the potential to make devices affordable for low income households. Also, innovative means of licensing spectrum to balance need of governments to raise revenue versus requirement to increase broadband penetration need to be devised;
The public partnering with the private sector and the use of Universal Service Funds;
Devising regulatory frameworks that ensures non-discriminatory access to back-haul;
Technology neutrality: Deploy different technologies as appropriate for different situations;
Parallel initiatives to stimulate demand e.g. providing netbooks to primary and secondary school students, creating awareness on the benefits of broadband services etc;
Providing universal access to broadband will require addressing the issues and factors as stated above in addition to addressing the needs of disadvantaged groups in utilising broadband services either by adapting the services to their needs and / or proper device configuration to meet the needs of disadvantaged groups.
In Africa however, due to the low level of broadband penetration, the infrastructure need to be put in place to enable access to broadband services for not just households and businesses but also to disadvantaged groups and accrue the benefits that results.
* Juwah made this presentation last week at the ITU Telecom World 2012 held by the International Telecommunication Union in Dubai, UAE.