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 Friday, June 13, 2008

A report dealing with the broader issues of rural connectivity in Africa to be launched next week by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) reveals that a number of novel and multi-stakeholder partnerships, unique business models and innovative technologies are, for the first time, paving the way to connect many of Africa’s rural communities, on a sustainable, profitable basis.

The report provides evidence that contrary to some assumptions that the private sector can lead the effort to connect Africa’s rural populations, the experiences of industrialised countries like Canada, the Unites States and Australia is that governments have had to lead the effort, but in close collaboration with the private sector and local communities. The report calls for Commonwealth African governments to implement their national ICT policies as part of a wider national development strategy and to make faster in-roads into rural ICT rollout through public private peoples partnerships (PPPPs), with local communities playing a more pivotal role.

The report finds that the key to successful partnerships between the public and private sectors and other ICT stakeholders is to encourage local ownership, thereby nurturing the community’s enthusiasm for effective connectivity and ensuring the sustainability of ICT investments.

The CTO study found that whereas Commonwealth countries such as Malaysia and India have made significant in-roads in rural connectivity, Commonwealth African countries like Sierra Leone and Zambia are lagging behind in rural access, leading to poor and overall slow economic growth. The report finds that although recent years have seen dramatic growth in penetration rates in some African countries, especially through mobile networks, the continent’s aggregate penetration rate is still less than 20 percent.

“For Internet access and use, the figures are well below 5 percent for most of Africa. Over 60 percent of Africa’s population lives in unconnected rural areas and represent an untapped market, holding enormous potential for growth for service providers, equipment manufacturers and the entire telecommunications industry”, the report claims.

By way of conclusion the report calls for ICT policy provisions that focus on universal and rural access, in order to affirm the commitment of governments to providing basic ICT services to poor, isolated and marginalised communities . There is also the need for continued incremental and a more methodical process of liberalisation and privatisation of the telecommunications sector in many African countries, and a variety of regulatory safeguards need to be put in place to foster competition and promote a conducive environment for rural connectivity.

Commenting on the initiative the CEO of CTO, Dr. Ekwow Spio-Garbrah said: “The evidence we have accumulated in the course of this 9-month study demonstrates that most of Africa’s rural populations could well be connected over the next decade. This is partly because an unusual confluence of sounder policies, relevant legislation, improving regulatory practices, the establishment of universal access and service agencies and the revenues they have acquired, new technologies and business models, and the availability of funding from a plethora of sources, all make it now possible for most of Africa to be connected wirelessly within the next ten years. According to the CTO CEO, who is a former Minister of Communications of Ghana, “the pilot project models we have found to work best are where a combination of public institutions and private ICT operators or equipment vendors have found it possible to involve local groups or communities in structuring, ownership or management of the ICT assets, to ensure their more effective use and sustainable operation. We hope that more companies will join the CTO as we move to the second phase of this important initiative to replicate and scale-up a number of selected model projects, so that the benefits of ICTs can be enjoyed by millions more in Africa. Connecting the majority of Africans to the Information Super Highway is necessary if African countries are to benefit from the global knowledge revolution,” said the CTO CEO.

The project was undertaken under the auspices of the Commonwealth Connects programme, which involves collaboration with a number of Commonwealth agencies, including the Commonwealth Secretariat. It is supported by the International Telecommunication Union, as part of efforts to help unearth market opportunities, enhance technological advancements, as well as accelerate social development and economic growth by connecting rural communities in the 18 Commonwealth African countries.

The first phase of the project was aimed at discovering how telecommunications regulation, policy, legislation, and operational, technological and financial models affect the potential for cost-effective rural connectivity in the 18 African Commonwealth countries. The research compiled similar information on initiatives and best practices of five selected non-African countries namely USA, Canada, Australia, Malaysia and India, countries that have enjoyed greater success in connecting their rural populations. Subsequently the initiative is to devise effective dissemination channels for the report and identify 10 pilot projects for adaptation and replication to form the basis for the second phase of the project.

The Commonwealth African Rural Connectivity Initiative (COMARCI) has so far received financial support from the Government of Malta, BT Global, Vodacom Group, Telkom of South Africa, Celtel Uganda and from the CTO itself.

Source: Cellular News.