WAFICT: Bridging Digital Divide through Broadband

17 May 2012

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 Minister of Communications, Omobola Johnson

Information and Communications (ICT) industry players, last week gathered in Lagos for the 2012 West Africa Information and Communications Technology (WAFICT) Congress to discuss policy objectives and strategies in bridging digital divide in West African countries, using broadband. Emma Okonji reports on  the planned strategy to deepen broadband penetration.
West African countries still have a long way to go in bridging digital divide, despite efforts being made by some countries to close the digital gap. In West Africa, Nigeria inclusive, low infrastructure rollout and the over concentration of operating companies in urban areas, including policy regulation, have been identified as some of the factors impeding fast broadband penetration.

Editor-in-Chief, IT & Telecom Digest, in his opening remarks at the just concluded WAFICT 2012 Congress in Lagos, said while West African leaders have been making frantic efforts in bridging the digital gap, the critical infrastructure necessary to facilitate broadband penetration was not yet in place. According to him, “the idea behind WAFICT Congress is to stand hand-in-hand with policy makers, experts, regulators, investors, entrepreneurs, industry associations, corporate organisations in the ICT sector, with one common resolve to continuously change the face of the sub-region’s ICT industry for the better.”

He said “for now, broadband penetration in most African countries is one of the lowest compared to what is obtainable in other parts of the world. A recent report estimates that only about 5.7 percent of African population have internet access. While Africa accounts for 14.3 percent of the world’s population, only 3.6 percent of the internet subscribers are Africans and those who have access to broadband connections are estimated to be one percentage or lower,” Abang said. He  added  that it was the reason WAFICT2012 focused on the theme ‘Bridging West Africa’s Digital Divide Through Broadband’, in order to discuss ways of deepening broadband penetration in West Africa, including Nigeria.

“Several years of efforts by Africa to get at par with the developed world regarding technology may have not gone in vain, but the fact is that Africa has seen growth in basic voice telephony, and not data, and there is need to compliment voice with data, through broadband,” Abang said.
Policy Intervention in Accelerating Broadband
President of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr. Lanre Ajayi, in his presentation at one of the sessions, argued that for Nigeria and West African countries to achieve broadband penetration, each country must set broadband penetration goal and computer penetration goal, and then define the policy objectives and strategies in the area of e-Government, e-Commerce, IT park development, Internet Governance, Cyber security, Internet Exchange, Spectrum management and Outsourcing, among others.

Ajayi proposed a broadband penetration target of 50 per cent within the timeframe of 5 years for Nigeria, explaining that should such target be met, more than 70 percent of Nigerian homes would be connected to broadband internet within the same period.

Looking at the strategies to achieve broadband penetration, he said government must ensure that broadband connectivity remained available in all schools  and also ensure that every government office is connected to broadband internet.

He called on government to provide special incentives for operators to encourage them to deepen their investment in broadband network rollout, and that such incentives should include: tax holiday as was done for the GSM rollout, lower cost of frequency spectrum, accelerated approval of request for right of ways, as well as provision of licence exempt frequency for deployment to underserved and unserved locations.  

Discussing the need to deepen computer penetration in schools, Ajayi said computers are enablers to broadband penetration, and should be considered when discussing broadband penetration.

“Computer, in this case, means all devices that is able to access the Internet which include laptops, netbooks, tablets, eBook readers among others,” he said.

He proposed computer penetration of 20 percent and suggested strategies like the facilitating of computer ownership for all Nigerian students. This, he said, could be funded through funds from corporate bodies and government agencies.

“When the computers, owned by students are shared with parents and other family members at home, it will enable the achievement of the proposed 50 broadband penetration,” Ajayi said.
Bridging Digital Divide
Director-General, National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Prof. Cleopas Angaye, while making presentation at WAFICT Congress, said it was obvious fact that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) has brought about unprecedented improvements in the world’s economic, political and social systems, and that the availability of accurate up-to-date information created and disseminated through ICTs has decisive impact on people’s  lives and on the socio-economic development of a country as a whole.

“ICT facilitates sustainable development through fast, cheap, equitable, and resource-efficient access to information, accumulated knowledge, learning opportunities and co-operation support tools for citizens. It can also assist government to enhance performance, reduce waste/corruption, improve health care delivery, eradicate poverty and generally improve standard of living thereby leading to the achievement of sustainable socio-economic development.

Despite the enormous benefits in ICT deployment, there still exist a wide gap between those who have access to modern tool and those who do not have access.

The wide technological gap between those who have access to deploy ICT and those who lack in the deployment of ICT is regarded as the “Digital Divide”, and while ICT has been improving at a rapid rate in the developed world, the story in quite different in west Africa and the developing countries,”  Angaye said,  while lamenting the low level of internet penetration in Nigeria and most West African countries.

According to him, Africa with 11.4 percent internet penetration out of a population of over 1.37 billion people has the lowest internet penetration while other continents such as North America (78.3per cent), Oceania/Austarlia (60.1per cent) and Europe (58.35per cent) have higher internet penetration.

“Out of ten countries listed for percentage of internet subscriptions in relation to population size, it is obvious that United Kingdom (82.0%) is rated number one while Germany (79.9per cent), Japan (78.4per cent) and United States of America (78.2per cent) are rated 2nd, 3rd, and 4th respectively.

Nigeria with 28.3per cent  subscription is rated number 10. The scenario shows that developing countries still have a lot to do in bridging the existing digital divide,” Angaye said. He  added  that the situation in Africa remained very serious taking into account that over 14.3 percent of the world population are from the continent and a very high number of the internet users in Africa are nationals of other parts of the world residing in Africa.
Broadband Challenges, Opportunities
According to Angaye, “African countries are still faced with the challenge of meeting the basic necessities of life like housing, healthcare delivery, diseases like Malaria and HIV/Aids all which greatly threaten our meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There is also the lack of high-capacity backbone networks and high cost of bandwidth. Therefore, the Internet is still out of reach to the vast majority of Africans.”

In emphasising the importance of ICT and the need to prevent digital divide the former Secretary-General of United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan,  stated that in the attempt to address the situation and bridge the existing digital divide, various governments and stakeholders across the globe were putting in place necessary strategies that include developing appropriate policies to create the enabling environment for the growth and deployment of ICT; development of relevant institutional and infrastructural framework; Human Capital Development and public-private-partnership amongst others.”

According to Angaye, “a veritable means of improving access to ICT and associated tools such as the internet is the development and deployment of broad band technologies. Through broadband, wide frequencies are available to transmit multiple and huge information concurrently within a given amount of time.

It is already providing opportunities for businesses to grow on the Internet at reduced costs. It increases their success and tax revenues to the government. Broadband is the driver of the major benefits of connectivity but its trend of its penetration in Africa is not only very low but also reflecting a widening gap between the average African countries and the more advanced countries in terms of ICT.”
Challenges of Broadband Deployment
Angaye noted that some challenges abound to contend with in the quest to bridge the digital divide. A major challenge militating against ICT development in Africa, according to him, remained the lack of adequate knowledge of ICT by decision makers.

Information and Communication Technology is knowledge based and could not be seen physically like physical infrastructures hence, most policy makers do not understand what it is all about.

He said necessary mechanisms should be put in place to properly create ICT awareness among the political leaders at all tiers of government in various African countries.

Another related challenge, he said, was the lack of clear-cut broadband policy that could create the enabling environment and encourage private sector stakeholders to deliver the ‘last Mile” broadband access to homes and corporate organisations.

Angaye also identified requisite ICT infrastructure which is non-existent in most cases as a major challenge. Where they exist, they are not properly deployed for adequate use. For instance, computers in some offices are usually covered and many are dusty because of long time neglect.

This should stop. The issue of power is also a major infrastructural defect but this could be addressed by adopting alternative sources of power in order to enhance the deployment of technologies, he said, insisting that the requisite human capital in most cases is not available at the rural level.

“Even those who have the capability would have moved to urban areas where they can be easily employed and get better remunerations and conditions of service.”

He said necessary institutional frameworks were yet to be established at the rural level, and has to a large extent, slowed down the rate of progress in the few locations where the values of ICT are appreciated.

“It is obvious that investment in ICT general and broadband is capital intensive whereas paltry amounts are always provided for ICT in the annual budgetary allocations. Deliberate attempt should therefore be made in harnessing commensurate financial resources specifically for broadband penetration in Africa”, Angaye said.
Retooling National Workforce with IT
Addressing the need to reinforce national workforce as a means to increase broadband penetration, President of Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON) Mr. Chris Uwaje, said government officers all over the world are confronted by the challenge of making the right decision from the bulky files in their possession, as reliable studies have shown that indeed, only 10 percent of the available content in those bulky files are humanly accessible at a given timeframe for making those decisions.

He said, “therefore,  the first priority of government in this 21st century knowledge economy is a mandatory function to retool its workforce, automate government content and processes and build robust, secured and sustainable computer-communication networks to establish IT connectivity backbone across all government departments, all over the country.”

Uwaje  further proposed that to meet the digital challenges of the 21st century, nations should declare ICT capacity building and infrastructure development as an emergency, deserving the highest priority and special budgetary allocation, and that software be recognised as the engine for sustainable growth and security of future education.
Way Forward
In order to bridge the Digital Divide in West Africa through Broadband, Angaye suggested that there was need for put in place and implement a comprehensive “Broadband Policy” with requisite strategic plan for implementation.

This, according to him, should be vigorously pursued with appropriate timeline/milestones. A regional body like ECOWAS can take this up and encourage all member nations to implement at their own pace bearing in mind their financial capabilities and other socio-economic and political factors.

In the area of Infrastructure, Angaye said government of member states should be encouraged to make appropriate budgetary provision for the deployment of broadband to improve Internet Access.

“The use of ICTs in all stages of Human Resource development in West African educational sector should be promoted in our attempt to create a globally competitive manpower

. Every literate Nigerian should be accorded the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge in order to understand, participate actively in, and benefit fully from the Information Society and the knowledge economy.

Also effort should be geared at developing examinable ICTs curricula for primary and secondary schools and regular review of the universities, polytechnics and other training outfits, both in the private and public sector as demanded by the rapid changes in the ICT industry”, he said.

Uwaje suggested the establishment of Information Technology Development Clusters as strategic imperative for innovative and sustainable education, improved quality skills, creation of wealth and competitiveness.

He also suggested the development of a special/continuous ‘Train-the –Trainer’ IT program for  all lecturers as well as a universal/compulsory IT training for all classes of workforce, and that employment at all levels be based on IT literacy with enhanced skill-sets in e-Learning and Multimedia e-Leadership as key imperatives. 

Tags: Business, Nigeria, WAFICT, Bridging Digital, ICT

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