Speech from Dr Hamadoun I. Touré,
It is a great pleasure to be here with you in Abuja today.
It has been an extraordinary decade for Africa – and it gives me great personal pleasure to see how the continent has taken huge steps forward in bringing connectivity to Africa’s people.
Just ten years ago, virtually nobody in Africa had a mobile phone; today mobile cellular subscription teledensity has reached 32.6%, with some 250 million subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
The spread of mobile telephony has also become much more equitable across the continent. Back in the year 2000, South Africa alone accounted for three quarters of sub-Saharan Africa’s mobile cellular subscriptions; by the beginning of this year it was just one fifth – and Nigeria is now the continent’s largest market, with over a quarter of all subscriptions, Africa-wide.
Operators have been impressively quick to spot market opportunities and boost mobile uptake and usage by easing the use of prepaid services and making them more convenient for low-income users. This includes offering features such as low denomination airtime recharges and per second billing – so that here in Nigeria, for example, recharges are available for as little as 50 naira.
Internet growth has also mushroomed. Ten years ago the Internet was accessed by just a tiny handful of wealthy people in the continent’s biggest cities; but today more than 30 million people in sub-Saharan Africa access the Internet.
That increase was led by Nigeria, which alone added 11 million new Internet users between 2000 and 2008 – representing close to 40% of the total additions in sub-Saharan Africa in that period.
What is needed now is a major push forward in broadband access, where Africa still lags behind every other region of the world. By the end of last year there were still only 635,000 fixed broadband subscribers across sub-Saharan Africa – or less than a tenth of the population of Lagos.
This lack of fixed broadband access is understandable – with a limited number of fixed lines, very few cable television networks, and insufficient competition, leading to unacceptably high prices for end users.
Mobile broadband may prove to be the answer. Indeed, in the five years since the first African mobile broadband services were launched, growth has been far more rapid than in fixed broadband, and by the beginning of 2009 there were over seven million mobile broadband subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa.
There is also good news concerning international Internet bandwidth, with the opening just last month of a new fibre-optic cable providing more affordable broadband to millions of people in Southern and Eastern Africa – and at least ten further undersea connections are expected within the next year.
How can we sustain these gains – and bridge the broadband divide?
I believe that pace of ICT development – including broadband take-up – hinges on the policy and regulatory framework. Political will is needed at the very highest levels of government to establish an enabling environment which will create a level playing-field for all stakeholders in promoting the roll-out of ICTs.
I am pleased to report that Africa is doing very well in terms of sector reform, and indeed is now the region with highest percentage – 91% – of countries with a separate telecom / ICT regulator. Many countries have embarked on the process of privatization and I notice that Nigeria has just announced the timetable for the completion of the sale of NITEL.
It is also good to note that competition in basic services is now the norm in Africa, with more than 60% of countries allowing multiple players in this market – and Africa’s highly-competitive mobile sector has been largely responsible for the sector’s spectacular growth.
African nations now have a unique opportunity to build on the success of initial sectoral reform. With technological advancements and smart business practices the WSIS targets are entirely feasible – as long as any remaining regulatory roadblocks are removed.
We all need to focus now, therefore, on implementing the universal access and broadband policies which can play an essential role in helping us achieve those targets.
And while I am on the subject, this is a good opportunity to remind you that we are holding the 9th Global Symposium for Regulators in Beirut, Lebanon, from 10 to 12 November, with the theme ‘Hands-on or Hands-off? Stimulating ICT growth through effective ICT regulation’ – and I would encourage anyone with an interest in regulation to attend.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Before I close, I would like to highlight a couple of areas where we at ITU are playing a concrete role in helping sustain the gains of telecom development in Africa.
The first of these is the HIPSSA project – ‘Support for Harmonization of the ICT Policies in Sub-Sahara Africa’.
HIPSSA, which is being carried out with the support of the European Union, aims to develop and promote harmonized policies and guidelines for the ICT market, as well as building human and institutional capacity in the field of ICT through a range of targeted training, education and knowledge-sharing measures.
We have now adopted a common list of priorities articulated around eight main subjects including licensing; universal service and access; frequency management; numbering management; interconnection; cybersecurity; analogue to digital broadcasting migration and the collection of statistics.
By incorporating all past and current sub-regional initiatives, along with other EU and international organization programmes, we are greatly increasing efficiency and avoiding duplication – and the African Union has particularly welcomed this approach.
The first major milestone currently under implementation is a report assessing the current level of harmonization related to the eight main subjects, which will enable us to compare regional harmonization initiatives so that we can determine commonalities and divergences between these initiatives.
This report will be invaluable in creating a comparative study on telecommunications and internet regulation in Africa which will be an important input to the African Union Heads of State Summit next January.
Another flagship project which I think ITU can be rightly proud of is Connect a School, Connect a Community, which is being formally launched in just a few weeks at the ITU World Telecom 2009 event in Geneva.
Connect a School, Connect a Community is a new public-private partnership effort to promote broadband school connectivity to serve both students and the communities in which they live.
We all know that ICTs provide unprecedented opportunities to accelerate social and economic development – and as a result, communities which lack ICT access and know-how therefore risk being even further marginalized.
The problem is that providing individual or even household connectivity in rural and underserved areas is often too expensive to implement. The same is true when trying to serve disadvantaged and vulnerable groups within communities.
Smart policies and innovative public-private partnerships promoting community access through schools therefore represent an attractive, affordable and scalable alternative.
Connected schools have the potential to serve as community ICT centres to provide access to services for people in isolate, rural, and marginal urban areas – with a particular focus on groups such as women and girls, indigenous people, persons with disabilities, and youth and children.
Through Connect a School, Connect a Community, ITU is working with a range of partners to identify and compile best practices on polices, regulation, applications and services – as well as practical experiences to be shared with interested countries through the development of an online Toolkit and related capacity-building activities.
We hope that the project will act as a ‘one-stop shop’, bringing together all best practices systematically, and holistically addressing all of the inter-related layers of the school connectivity ecosystem.
And unlike a number of programmes in the past, Connect a School, Connect a Community doesn’t promote dial-up or low-speed Internet access at all – but instead focuses directly on broadband.
I am, as many of you know, an optimist.
And I firmly believe that by working together we can not just sustain the decade’s gains in telecoms development, but also move rapidly forward, to meet the WSIS targets and the Millennium Development Goals.
This is not just a wish, on my part, but an absolute necessity, if Africa is to take its rightful place in the global knowledge economy.