A4AI’s latest Affordability Report shows that Sub-Saharan Africa has a long way to go – more affordable Internet a must
24 February 2017
The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has just published its 2017 Affordability Report: It provides a very clear way of assessing Africa’s progress towards affordable Internet. Although there is some good news, the main message is “must try harder”. Russell Southwood spoke to Dhanaraj Thakur, A4AI’s Research Manager about what the results mean for Africa.
As the organization’s Executive Director Sonia Jorge notes in the report:” The consequences of this digital divide are real: as half the world reaps the opportunities provided by the digital revolution, the other half is falling further behind, undermining development and entrenching patterns of inequality”.
In a world where data prices have been changing, A4AI has set itself and the world a more ambitious affordability target:” These policies should be grounded in a new, more ambitious affordability target of “1 for 2”— 1GB of data for no more than 2% of income — that enables more income groups to afford to connect.
Just 19 of the 58 countries assessed for this year’s report have met this “1 for 2” target.2 For this reason, it is critical that countries also implement public access solutions to ensure that those at the base of the pyramid don’t also remain relegated to the back of the connectivity queue”.
Of the 19 countries that have met the “1 for 2” target, only five are in Africa and none are in mainland Sub-Saharan Africa. The five countries are Sudan, Mauritius, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. In 2015 the average price of a 1GB mobile prepaid data plan was over 15% of GNI Per capita compared to around or below 5% in the rest of world. Things have improved in 2016 but the full efficiency savings required by Africa’s mobile operators to deliver comparable performance are not yet in place.
The report identifies a number of Affordability Drivers and creates an Index to assess which countries are making the most progress to affordability by scoring against these criteria. Only 8 African countries out of the 58 assessed are in the top half of the rankings: Morocco (11); Nigeria (15); Botswana (15); Cote d’Ivoire (18); Rwanda (21); South Africa (22); Ghana (26) and Benin (29).
The remaining 17 fall into the bottom half of the rankings: Kenya (30); Namibia (31); Tunisia (34); Egypt (36); Zambia (37); Gambia (38); Tanzania (39); Mali (44); Mozambique (45); Senegal (47); Zimbabwe (50); Malawi (51); Cameroon (52); Sudan (53); Burkina Faso (54); Ethiopia (55); and Sierra Leone (56). You will see that even some of those who have achieved the “1 for 2” affordability target could still do better.
The report focuses attention on five policy levers to achieve affordability: 1. Effective policies and regulation for competition; 2. Detailed and efficient broadband strategies; 3. Cohesive spectrum policy and access to spectrum; 4. Infrastructure and resource sharing; and 5. Policies to support Universal Service Access Funds (USAFs) and public access.
Judged against these criteria, the report found the following:
- Just 50% of countries have policies to support public access that are also backed by some financial support for implementation, resulting in unfulfilled public access plans.
- Only 45% of countries have developed plans to reduce costs by facilitating resource sharing (e.g., sharing of infrastructure like towers or fibre networks) among telecommunications companies. Effective implementation of such policies is even rarer. It points out that Cameroon and Mali have implemented policy frameworks but not implemented them.
- Only one in three countries has a detailed, time-bound plan for making more spectrum available to meet increasing mobile broadband demands. It points to the spectrum policy fiasco in South Africa as a “cautionary tale” of how not to do things.
- In over a third of countries, Universal Service and Access Funds don’t exist or are dormant:”It is a huge problem. So many countries just have the funds sitting there…If you ask the MNOs to contribute and the money is not spent, they get disillusioned.”
- National broadband plans — an overarching framework for policy reform to drive universal access — are badly out of date, or have never been developed, in 41% of countries surveyed.
Thakur highlights two areas where the African countries assessed are not making as much progress as they could - spectrum policy and USF Funds – but there have been a number of improvements in competition policy.
So why are most African countries under-performing in delivering the “1 for 2” target and the policies A4AI believes are necessary to achieve it? It would be easy to conclude that it was just part of Sub-Saharan African Governments’ wider inability to set themselves objectives to improve the lives of their citizens and deliver on those objectives. As Thakur observes:”You can’t just tick a box. You have to follow through.”
However, there are two African countries amongst those identified as showing improvement which demonstrate that it can be done: Benin and Botswana.
Benin moved up nine places from its 38th place ranking in 2016. This jump came from incremental and separate improvements across a range of policy areas, and not the introduction of any single major reform. For example, the regulator now publishes more information on its regulations and decisions — a move which can help improve transparency in decision-making. It has also made further effort to hold operators accountable to providing good quality of services. Efforts to improve public consultation — including the ability to submit comments regarding proposed policies and regulations online — are promising, however in a country where just 7% of the population reported using the internet in 2015, other necessary forms of public consultation on regulatory decision- making are still rare.
In Botswana, the government introduced new rules in late 2015 that improve and simplify the existing multi-service licensing regime, and ensure technology and service neutrality — without restricting operators from holding different types of licenses (e.g., network, services, or content providers). Though further reforms will be required to achieve a unified licensing framework, it represents a step in the right direction. Botswana’s regulator also established a USAF in 2014, which has since been used to support several public access initiatives, including free Public Wi-Fi.
The report also emphasizes promoting community networks that do not yet have the presence found in India and parts of Latin America:”Policy makers need to pay more attention to them. They are not just a mechanism for not for profit and community access but there are also opportunities for partnerships with mobile operators.
Funds from the country’s USAF (created in 2014) have facilitated the provision of WiFi hotspots in 31 sites (e.g., hospitals, bus stops, taxi ranks, shopping malls) across seven towns. A wholesale service provider offers backhaul services to retailers on an open-access basis and in turn, these retailers offer WiFi hotspot services to consumers.
These hotspots provide the public with 30 minutes of free internet access daily and free and unlimited access to select Government of Botswana websites. Individuals also have the option to top-up their connection by purchasing vouchers. The USAF subsidises the costs of the wholesale network, thereby making it cheaper for consumers to access the WiFi hotspots. At the end of 2016, 1GB vouchers were available for a little over US $8 — much lower than the US $28 it costs to purchase 1GB of mobile prepaid data. Vouchers can be purchased online or at a number of other venues, and consumers have the option to pay for vouchers using mobile money.
The successful Latin American countries that are at the top of A4AI’s index habe a much higher proportion of people using Wi-Fi hotspots, a pattern more in line with developed country trends. So for example, 43.5% of mobile Internet users in Colombia and 43.2% in Peru use Wi-Fi hotspots compared to 30% in Kenya, 17.2% in Nigeria and 13.4% in Ghana.
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