Current market trends in telecommunications show that the mobile network is progressively becoming the basic services network whilst the fixed one is slowly reverting to being a value added services network for high bandwidth applications.People everywhere in the global world are showing a preference for communication infrastructures that connect people which are available from the wireless mobile operators. With reduced mobile tariffs, they are migrating in large numbers from fixed telecom pro viders which only connect places. Thus it will not be long, only a matter of a few years, before the number of mobile lines overtakes fixed lines.
With the technology convergence brought about by digital technology, data is set to overtake voice. Given that the primary data application is multimedia Internet, the wireless mobile Intemet market is the focus for those seeking high returns in years to come.Digital technology is also spawning a new industry - that of information and conununication technology (ICT). This is being recognised by governments around the world with establishment of Ministers of Information and Communications and even Technology.Universities are also changing their curricula to create new integrated degree programmes for information and communication technologies.
How do we harness the benefits for our people in Africa ?
To address this question adequately, we need to look at the new roles the different stakeholders in the industry will be expected to play.With telecom sector reforms, there are many more distinct stakeholder groups with the major ones being policymakers (ministers), regulators (communication commisioners), operators (telecom companies), service providers (Intemet, value added, contractors, consultants), technology providers (vendors, manufacturers), education/training providers (universities, polytechnics) and end users.
- Policymakers: Governments can further stimulate the telecom sector by formulating an Information and Communications Technology master plan (up to say 2020 or 2025). This document should set policy objectives and milestones and should be arrived at through stakeholders' participation and consensus. It should also promote progressive regional and continental market integration;
- Regulators: Tle regulators' primary role will be to harmonise regulations in the region especially in matters of interconnection and spectrum utilisation. Working initially through a regulation association, the communication commissioners should in time enable the creation of a regional regulation entity. The new entity would release licensing framework and licence application guidelines for the provision of crossborder telecoms networks and services in member countries;
- Operators, technical and service providers: Standardisation will be the key role of these increasingly private sector players. They should be active in the global dialogue and debate on evolution of Wireless Access Protocols' (WAP), General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) standards and the new generation of mobile temlinals that integrate terrestrial and satellite wireless connectivity being discussed in the International Telecommunications Union under the IMT2000 progranune. Private sector players will reap tremendous benefits through active participation in continental and global conferences and assemblies;
- Education and Training Providers: As technology converges, new competencies for systems integration are needed. To remain relevant, universities and polytechnics in have to re-invent their degree and diploma programmes to meet the market requirements. They will also have to develop collaborative research and developments arrangements with industry that will lead to manufacture of affordable and robust technologies;
- Consumers/users: The interest of policymakers in the telecom sector is in the multiple benefits to be derived from it. Telecoms catalyses other industries whilst it is itself a generator of job opportunities. Faster growth of the sector means that more citizens of East Africa will enjoy the 'human right to communication' as per country policy statement objectives and United Nations General Assembly endorsement of December 1997.
A pro-active participating approach through demand for world-class and affordable service by consumers will keep providers on their toes. As the ICT industry grows in the multi-operator environments of Africa, there are a number investment/business opportunities that are emerging.
- Peering Hub/Telchouse Operators: They will provide interconnection, peering services to Internet service providers, telecom operators, TV/FM radio operators and IT corporate networks;
- Backbone Network Operators: With evolution of policy and regulatory frameworks, way leave owners will be enabled to enter the telecoms market as fibre-optic backbone network operators. Well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity are the railway, power, water and petroleum pipeline owners;
With an appropriate licensing framework, they can string fibre-optic throughout their networks and sell capacity to telecom, Intemet, television, radio and IT network providers. They can also provide inter-country and inter-city connectivity.
- IP-based TeIecentre Service Providers: The telecentre concept for provision of voice, data and bureau services can flexibly be applied to a wide range of end users. With innovative licensing frameworks, telecentres can be a fast way of creating jobs and pro~ viding universal access to basic communication for schools and health centres. The various Automobile Associations could even run a network of telecentres to help save lives on our highways;
- IP-based video conference service providers: Access to distant sports, entertainment and education content will be enabled with licensing of specialised value added service providers of this kind. VSAT technology lends itself well to linking university lecture theatres for distance learnin and to conference centre to reach regional audiences for special events. Licensing two to three VSAT operators in every country will give the necessary boost to wider availability of these services.
Having reviewed the role the key stakeholders can play in getting Africa mobilised, together with an indication of emerging of business opportunities, 1 would like to highlight the role the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) intends to take in the coming years.
The ATU came into being in December last year as a successor to the Pan African Telecommunications Union by resolution of the 4th extraordinary session of the Conference of Plenipotentiaries meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. PATU was itself established by the Organisation of African Unity in 1977 as a special agency of the OAU, in the field of teleconununications.
The ATU is currently undergoing restructuring as it transforms from the old PATU which was purely an intergovernmental agency, to the new entity, which is a partnership between governments and the information and communications technology industry. The ATU has a new vision, mission and set of ambitious objectives. It also has a new strategic plan which has been titled "The African Connection".
The vision of the union is to make Africa an equal and active participant in the global information society. Within the larg er vision of the 2 1 st Century as being that of the African Renaissance, the union's mission is to promote rapid development of info-communications to achieve universal access and full inter-country connectivity.
The name of the union was changed from PATU to ATU to mark the dramatic change in focus from the past and to signify participation of the private sector in its affairs.
In carrying out the mission of the union, we shall focus on two principal tasks, namely "universal access to basic communication" and "inter-country backbone connectivity". To this extent, we shall measure Africa's progress in building information infrastructure using a wider range of telecommunication indicators.
Within the context of regional ICT master plans, we would like to see goals that ensure: Telchouse/peering hub in every country; that every hub is connected by three-tier networks (fibre-optic cable, n-u'cro wave, satellite link); presence of an IP-based telecentre in every school; public interact access in every post office; video conference fitted lecture theatre in every university; an ICT certified and accredited education and training centre in every country.
With the new public and private sector partnership that has been created in the ATU, we all have an opportunity to be solution providers to Africa's telecom challenges.