17 May celebrated World Telecommunications Day. Acknowledging the power of telecommunications in redressing poverty and other imbalances between various communities, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) chose 'ICT (Information and Communication Technology) for all: empowering people to cross the digital divide' as its theme.
BMI-T telecoms analyst Dobek Pater observes that, at the outset, a lack of competition has hampered the achievement of this goal. "Incumbent fixed line or mobile telcos have fulfilled their universal service obligations (USO) and have no incentive to roll out further coverage or services, because they have already tapped the most affluent part of the market and additional subscribers would not justify the additional capital expenditure needed," he says.
In effect, Pater sums up the nature of the telecoms business: it is such that profit is the primary goal of companies seeking to provide the infrastructure necessary to provide basic communications services to disadvantaged communities. He notes that, in many cases, there is a lack of properly set out USOs: "Even if a USO does exist and is fairly comprehensive, the state-owned telco may not have the necessary funds to provide universal services, and without competition in the market, nothing much will happen to alleviate the problem".
The ITU concedes that the benefits of ICTs are far from having been harnessed. "The availability, use and deployment of ICTs vary considerably between rural and urban areas, according to the income level of people, their level of education, their age and their gender," says the organisation. Addressing these inequities requires considerably more than just the enabling technology. "How that technology is put to use in the service of development must also be considered. While much has already been done, governments, industry and civil society need more action if all humanity is to benefit from ICT," is the ITU observation.
The gulf presented by the so-called digital divide is not easily surmounted. "The digital divide will persist in some form or other as long as Africa and other developing parts of the world has not caught up to the First World, which is not imminent. Africa is nowhere near catching up to teledensity rate of first world countries and it may take the continent another 20 years before it can significantly close the gap," he explains, noting however, that Africa is a continent of stark contrasts and that this assessment cannot be applied in a blanket approach.
While Pater concedes that usage costs in Africa are high, he notes that all services cost and that Africa in particular cannot afford to practice socialism. Heavily subsidised ICT services would go a long way to achieving the ITU's aspirations, but global experience testifies that the best services are often delivered by private enterprises, which by their nature must profit.
"When a telco sets up operations in a new market, it follows a strictly defined plan of investment and return. If a company is a monopolist in the market, it would be shooting itself in the foot by lowering prices when there is no threat from either competition or customers. We cannot blame a telco for such a situation, but rather the responsible government," he concludes.
For further information see www.bmi-t.co.za or contact: Dobek Pater, BMI-TechKnowledge, 011 803 6412.