GHANA VOIP FRAMEWORK: NCA IN A DITHER OVER THE WAY FORWARD

Telecoms

Ghana’s regulator, the National Communications Authority is beginning to find its feet. It has recently had a new Chair appointed (see People below), freeing it from the grip of direct Government control. Apparently the outgoing Communications Minister (who was the then Chair of the NCA) put a paper to the Board of the the NCA suggesting that only one VOIP licence be granted. It was rejected by the NCA Board. With the Government as owner of Ghana Telecom no longer as Chair, it is loudly declaring to all who will listen that "the NCA has not been set up to be a friend to Ghana Telecom".

Nevertheless it is having some difficulty reaching a speedy and agreed position on the VOIP issue. In formal terms a paper has gone to the NCA board and it will decide on the issue in the coming months. However it is clear that there is a major debate going on between those who wish to see the market opened up (with certain safeguards) and those who are still anxious to protect the Government-owned incumbent from any serious or for that matter legal competition. With Ghana Telecom itself estimating its losses to "illegal" VOIP traffic at between US$15-25 million, it is quite clear that the company is already getting a run for its money. And the competition is not always coming from where you’d expect it: at least one mobile operator is carrying a lot of VOIP traffic and Westel’s licensed international gateway is doing good business.

Bernard Forson, Deputy Director of the NCA provided an insight into the regulators thinking at a meeting of cyber-café operators at Busy Internet: "The best the Government can do is create an enabling environment. It can’t pay for the infrastructure...We want to ensure therefore that there is a vibrant backbone." He said that he wanted to "walk you through our thinking, especially on VOIP." The thought processes he went through seemed to indicate that he favoured more international gateways provided those involved made a contribution to modernising the infrastructure. Roughly translated, new gateways would need to make investment commitments and would also probably find that GT was allowed to charge more on the interconnect rates.

He was also clear that "there must be interconnect agreements between value service providers." GT is already challenging the interconnect rates and trying to raise them so that it can create a business model that deals with both greater competition and falling international rates. But according to one source close to the regulator: "The NCA wants to try and get a wider consensus and not go straight in with the big stick."

His most controversial pronouncement in a lively evening of debate was to compare illegal VOIP operators to cocaine dealers: both provided employment and opportunities but it didn’t make either desirable. The recent crackdown on VOIP operators uncovered an unlicensed ISP who had simply used another ISP’s licence papers to get lines from GT. A terrier-like overseas journalist amongst the audience got him to admit that with the passing of the duopoly that there were now no longer any rules and therefore it was hard to say that companies doing VOIP were breaking the rules. The NCA will have to move fast to fill this regulatory vacuum. Under questioning Forson said that a decision would be reached by the third quarter of this year. This is not exactly a speedy timetable given how many months have already gone by since the passing of the international duopoly.