Interview: Kwabena Akyeampong

What can be done to improve access to broadband networks and ICT, and to what extent are private sector players involved in developments?

KWABENA AKYEAMPONG: Since its inception 10 years ago, GIFEC has only put up 51 masts and towers across the country. In the near and medium term, this figure must increase dramatically. For under-served rural communities that do not have a network or a telephone system, a mast is constructed within the scope of the rural telephony project. Ghana’s largest mobile provider, MTN, was welcomed because its plans to build 75 additional masts came at no cost to GIFEC. Public-private partnership (PPP) initiatives are also expected to boost connectivity in rural areas.

A collaboration between MTN and Swedish firm Ericsson is bearing fruit, and the former is also partnering with China’s Huawei to allocate 70 more masts. Over the next two to three years, through the Rural Telephony Project, the number of masts should exceed 300. Other foreign investors include Denmark’s BLUETOWN, which is in Ghana to do a feasibility project. Following the study, the company may enter into a PPP with GIFEC to improve rural telephony, a project which BLUETOWN would fund. As such, the private sector recognises that the $37m government-built very small aperture terminal (VSAT) hub project, which collates all calls so that they reach Ghana at the same time, makes for an attractive investment that is mutually beneficial.

What sort of reforms might help bring down the cost of access to broadband?

AKYEAMPONG: Currently, if telecoms companies want to connect through a cellular site in a rural community, they have to build their own systems. This is quite expensive for most companies if the community is very small and cellular traffic is low. These telecoms firms simply need to configure their systems so that they can run them through GIFEC’s hub, which reduces the cost of servicing rural communities from an infrastructure point of view. Universal access to internet and telecoms services is then guaranteed for two years and renewed at the end of that period. Over the next two to three years, Ghana will be challenged to increase 4G LTE connectivity, as only MTN has a telecoms licence for the technology. The best-case scenario will see Ghana graduate to the next generation, 5G, in 2022 or 2023.

How can Ghana increase foreign direct investment (FDI) in critical ICT market infrastructure?

AKYEAMPONG: Assuring foreign investors that they will have access to the VSAT hub, which drastically reduces their capital and operating expenditure, will draw FDI towards Ghana’s ICT sector. Being one of the first countries in sub-Saharan Africa to have the infrastructure necessary for reliable internet access, Ghana has refined the niche ICT services it provides over the past 20 years. Despite the infrastructure and technology present, the population still needs to utilise these services in significant numbers.

For example, markets in Kenya and Rwanda have access to a larger block of East African users, and because sizeable FDI inflows have occurred in the recent past, the right conditions are present for the ICT sector to flourish. Despite starting ahead of these countries in the mid-1990s, Ghana has lagged behind in certain ICT metrics and now needs to catch up. Mimicking these East African markets could help show other ECOWAS member states that Accra could act as a legitimate West African centre for ICT.

The potential for an ECOWAS hub to be based in Accra is possible, it simply needs to be acted on through the actions of PPPs, regulatory bodies and entrepreneurs, and with the assistance of foreign investors. Another major component of infrastructure improvements in 2017 will be the implementation of the Western Corridor Fibre Optic backbone.