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Is Africa's digital revolution under threat?


03 October 2012

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A report, written by Rohan Samarajiva, former Director General of Telecommunications for Sri Lanka and CEO of Lirne Asia, an ICT think-tank, predicts dire consequences for the development of the internet and Africa's prosperity if governments do shift to a 'sending party network pays' model.

Back in the 1990s, before everyone had two mobile phones and Skype was still a distant dream, if you were an African living elsewhere, with a need to call home, you either made frequent visits to a local call centre or you bought an international calling card.

Getting through to your loved ones or business contacts was a gamble, and every successful call was a triumph of hope over adversity.

The arrival of mobile phones and, just as significantly, cheap and easy access to the internet for many people across Africa and the African diaspora, was an understated miracle based on a relatively small shift in government policies. Now it's possible that another shift in government policies could kill this revolution before it has fulfilled its potential.

Over the course of the nineties and early noughties, a telecommunications revolution took hold across Sub-Saharan Africa as many governments relaxed rules governing involvement in the telecoms sector, allowing private players to enter the market - notably, Mo Ibrahim, who established Celtel (now trading as Airtel). Many global companies are now itching to get into Africa, thanks in part to the success of telecoms companies.

The African Development Bank (ADB) estimates that there are 473 mobile phones per 1, 000 people on the continent, a significantly higher level of mobile phone penetration than anywhere else in the world. It certainly beats the 15 fixed line phones per 1,000 users across Africa. The mobile phone revolution, still in its infancy, and the nascent internet revolution - which began with the laying of fibre optic sea cables, funded by a range of interested parties - has made Africa more connected to the rest of the world than it has ever been before.

A vast range of services, businesses and movements are emerging out of the connections that Africans are making globally, not least with their kith and kin in the diaspora. Take the example of Light Up Nigeria, a social movement that aimed to raise awareness of Nigeria's power electricity access. The campaign was conceived by Nigerians in the country and in the diaspora over the BlackBerry messenger service, where much of the co-ordination of its successful protests and events also happened.

Ushahidi, a crowd-sourcing'website, which relies on text messaging to obtain information, was crucial to tracking the political violence in Kenya during the tumultuous 2007 elections. Crucially, it was the relatively inexpensive nature of text messages which made Ushahidi and developments like it viable.

Internet revolution under threat

Yet, increasingly aware of what looks like a booming and profitable sector, some governments on the continent are contemplating more taxes on internet and mobile related activity. Meanwhile, industry bodies, such as ETNO [European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association] are pushing for the introduction of a mechanism called 'sending party network pays' which would treat content providers as "call originators" , similar to the way any consumer making a phone call bears the cost of initiating it.

ETNO, a body made up of many of the large telecoms companies in Europe, wants this policy to become international law. Currently, for most of the companies, the cost of providing data, say a video, is expensive and outstripping capacity to carry the data, requiring significantly more investment.

A report, written by Rohan Samarajiva, former Director General of Telecommunications for Sri Lanka and CEO of Lirne Asia, an ICT think-tank, predicts dire consequences for the development of the internet and Africa's prosperity if governments do shift to a "sending party network pays" model.

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SOURCE: all Africa

 
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