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Africa in Internet Governance and financing the Information Society
by eric
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Africa in Internet Governance and financing the Information Society

By Eric M.K Osiakwan

Executive Secretary of AfrISPA


Africa stands at a very unusual threshold of the Information Society because it is the least developed continent and seeking to use Information Communication Technology (ICTs) to advance its developmental cause but at the same time caught in the web of ideas taking position on not only Internet Governance but financing of the Information Society. As an African I see the dilemma and seek in this final in the series of papers to make some suggestion to our community on how we can sail this storm because it is not an easy one. In my earlier essays namely; “the Net wants to be decentrally governed” and “Open Access and Financing Principles for the Information Society” I laid the foundation for this paper so you are better able to understand my proposals if you read those first. However I would advance this commentary by summing up the critical assumptions, linking them and extrapolating for the benefit of Africa. 


The modeling of the Internet as opposed to the old telephone network is such that the former is highly decentralized and the intelligence of the network is at the edges of it whiles the later is a highly centralized network with the intelligence at the core; this is the big deferential between the two platforms. The deferential is not just an engineering error or an inanimate discovery but a deliberate human design that seeks to create a distributed yet extremely collaborative platform for scaling global communication and commerce. In a simple way, the argument can be advanced that your level of governance of the Internet is commensurate to the “amount” of Network and Intelligence we contribute to the global common.


We can extrapolate further that it is paramount for Africa to prioritize its few resources on the building of our network and it’s intelligence at the edges of the global platform to contribute to the global collaboration in order to gain critical bargaining power as the Asians did. This is not to say Africa should not be part of the debate because it does not have the critical network needed but rather that we need to prioritize our few resources on where we can gain more weight and not use the scarce resource on elements of the structure which are porous. The suggestion for Africa to concentrate on her infrastructure development is not just rhetoric against our participation in global policy development but rather underscored by the fact that Africa is the most unwired continent in the world, most of its internal communication (voice, data, and video) has to be resolved internationally. This cost the continent a fortune hence the cost of communications is significantly higher in Africa than elsewhere in the world. It has been estimated that for data alone this routing of traffic costs the continent US$400 million a year[1]. A forthcoming report on bandwidth projection for Sub-Saharan Africa predicts 24% overall growth in the three years up to 2008.[2] According to a new report published by Balancing Act recently, the transmission capacity required to carry Africa’s international voice and data traffic increased by 91% in the three years to 5.09 Gbps 2002, will increase by at least 137% to 12.09 Gbps in the three years to 2005, and a further 81% to 21.9 Gbps in the three years to 2008.


The demand projections suggest the need for a robust passive infrastructure build-out in and around Africa using fiber optics. There is an urgent need for new approaches to financing and building out information and communication infrastructure to address this large unmet demand for information and communication services. This leads me to my argument that if Africa has to build its network and intelligence then it must of necessity focus on the second and as far as am concerned the most important outcome of the Geneva phase which is “financing the Information Society”.


The ban of infrastructure, service and product development on the ICT track in Africa is due largely to the restrictive laws and an untrustworthy regulatory process that thwart the ability of local entrepreneurs and outside investors alike to supply the local markets with these technologies. The elimination of the existing (and emerging) legal and regulatory obstacles to open communications network deployment is a significant boost to private-sector investment.


Given that the future of all voice, data, multimedia, and broadcast communications lies with packet-switched, Internet-based networks, the question for Africa is whether we will (a) embrace these open, decentralized, low-cost technologies, or (b) seek, as most have been doing, to prohibit or restrict them, under pressure from our state-owned monopoly telecom operators. In the more stable parts of Africa, the central obstacle to investment in Information Communications Technology deployment (and the spread of low-cost, reliable, up-to-date information and communications services) is foolhardy governmental regulation. Most African governments have imposed heavy-handed, restrictive, backward-looking, monopoly-protecting laws and regulations to the telephony sectors; many have currently moved aggressively to extend them to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the ICT sector at large. The result is that most African governments are, in large ways or small, actively discouraging or prohibiting investment in and deployment of ICTs in the areas of infrastructure, service and products. 


Most African still have astonishingly low rates of communications penetration. If the populations of those countries had ready, affordable access to high-speed Internet-based wireless voice data communications, the benefits could be tremendous: reduced costs of doing business; increased productivity and efficiency; greater political transparency, and new tools with which to fight corruption.


The various issues mentioned above are all connected to each other:  they raise the fundamental question of whether the African governments in question will recognize and embrace the fundamental shift toward Internet-based communications networks. The alternative, which is currently prevailing in nearly all developing countries, is for the government to cling to yesterday’s technology and do everything in its power to prop up the monopoly telecom. What makes the choice difficult is that it is not simply between old-fashioned telephone and new-fangled Internet technologies – it is a choice between two ways of behaving as a government and society. The old ways, fitting the telephone network, were closed, centralized, controlled, and top-down; the new ways, like the Internet itself, are open, decentralized, competitive, and technology-neutral – WAKE UP AFRICA.

[1] Via Africa: Creating local and regional IXPs to save money and bandwidth, Draft discussion paper prepared for IDRC and ITU for the 5th Annual Global Symposium of Regulators, 2004

[2] Balancing Act Voice and Data Bandwidth Forecasts (2005-2008), Paul Hamilton and Russell Southwood, Forthcoming

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