\'If you\'re not scared you don\'t understand\'
\”If IP(Internet Protocol) has the ability to give rural and urban citizens access to low cost and high-quality communications African governments had better have a good reason for blocking it,\” Andrew McLaughlin of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School told delegates at last week\’s Internet Week in Johannesburg.
McLaughlin, a highly respected commentator on the Internet and one of the founders of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) said regulation, and particularly bad regulation, is the largest obstacle facing the citizens of most African countries . \”Bad regulations,\” he said, \”create artificial barriers to technology which creates higher costs, fewer services, less reliability and lower quality of services.\”
Providing affordable and quality communications facilities to Africa is in most cases easer to achieve using IP and mobile technology than it is using traditional \”wire\” infrastructures. And yet most African governments restrict or have even banned the use of IP-based technology believing that they need to protect the incumbent telecoms monopoly in which most governments have a major or total stake, said McLaughlin. \”Voice of IP (VoIP) is in fact an opportunity for fundamental reform of the telecommunications regulation and offers the opportunity of achieving universal service much more easily.\” African governments must embrace the opportunity and look to introducing new licensing structures that promote competition and availability in the market. In many cases, said McLaughlin, governments are wary of allowing competition into the market and yet they are in a very strong position to offer competitive and even better quality services even using IP than new start ups.
\”Africa should embrace a superset of unlicensed frequencies the same as is being done in Europe and in the US.\” These frequencies are well catered for with a range of hardware available, he said. Currently countries in Africa generally under-utilize radio frequency and yet at the same time they insist on licensing every portion of the spectrum which doesn\’t make sense.
Most African government talk of providing \”universal service\” to their citizens and yet don\’t consider the fact that mobile technology is a far easier way to achieve this goal than with landlines, said McLaughlin. The growth in mobile phones in Africa over the past five years far outstrips the number of landlines on the continent, despite the fact that the landline telephone has been in existence for around 100 years.
One mistake that most regulators make, he said, is to believe that IP and traditional telecoms are the same thing. \”Internet is not the same as the telephone. It is in fact a fundamental shift and the future of communications is the Internet Protocol. [As an African government] if you are not panicking then you don\’t understand the issues,\” he said.
What governments should be doing is diversifying into IP networks. \”The sooner the better.\” They should start to see telecoms as a \”connectivity cloud\” and the service they offer as connectivity. Essentially providing the infrastructure to complete connections, no matter whether it is packet-based or circuit-switched, landline or satellite. On top of this telecoms operators can offer integrated services and because of their local-loop advantage they can compete against any number of other operators.