How long should we wait for ICT Chamber?

BY: Charles Benoni Okine
Mr William Tevie — Director General, NCA

The Ghana ICT Chamber, made up of Surfline Communications, Gold Key Telecoms and Blu Telecoms, has raised grievous concerns over the intention of the National Communications Authority (NCA) to sell next generation spectrum to foreign-owned telecom companies.

 

According to the chamber, the decision is a clear violation of the promises the NCA made to the local ICT companies to ring fence the deployment of next generation Long-Term Evolution (LTE) capacity to Ghanaian-owned companies only.

The chamber also strongly argued that the move, if carried out by the industry regulator, would cause members of the chamber to lose more than the US$200 million they had so far invested in their businesses, out of which nothing had yet been recouped as return on investment (ROI).

These concerns are genuine because it is the intention of the members of the chamber to dominate their space as in the case of the mobile voice sector where players are giant multinationals who have ruled the sector for more than 20 years.

Despite the concerns raised, the Director-General of the NCA, Mr William Tevie, maintains that the action is well-intended to improve internet penetration in the country.

He explained that the move specifically mentioned that the consortium or entity, if foreign, should have at least 35 per cent Ghanaian ownership for the two 10 MHz spectrums that are to be sold.

Mr Tevie justified the intention of the NCA, saying that after selling the first 4G licence to wholly Ghanaian owned entities, nothing much has been achieved and indicating that so far it is only Surfline which has been able to roll out “anything substantial on its network.”

What about the stated positions

The two positions put forward by the ICT chamber and the NCA are sound and relevant. In the end, each party has good intentions as far as internet penetration in the country is concerned.

It is a fact that many lucrative sectors of the economy, airline, banking, oil and gas, have been fully liberalised to an extent that players in those sectors are all multinationals - leaving no room for Ghanaians.

From afar, this phenomenon seems as if the initiative of Ghanaians are being killed because there is no protection for them, as in the case of the countries from where the multinationals come from to dominate our economy.

In spite of this, the question about the ability of Ghanaians to demonstrate ample ability, financially and technically, to hold on to areas which have been initially reserved for them still lingers.

Taking the telecom sector, for instance, it is clear that the capital outlay needed to make it in that space is substantial and the local companies cannot meet the level of investment required.

Telecommunications the world over is fast evolving because there are innovations, new products and new services coming up every minute, and this throws a challenge to the operators to innovate else the countries in which they operate will lag behind.

ICT chamber performance

The ICT chamber members have not been able to live up to expectation ever since they were given the licences to operate fourth generation Long term Evolution (4G LTE).

Even in Accra, Surfline which is the most dominant of the four has not been able to cover the entire region. In areas where it is even present, there are serious challenges that need to be fixed.

Blu Telecoms has started a pilot but is yet to launch commercially. For the others, nothing is even heard about them because they seem to exist on paper and not in reality.

It will not be the best for the NCA to kill the initiative of local ICT companies but the regulator is fully aware of the developments in the sector so far and seems cautious about its approach.

It is also obvious that the direction it has taken is well intended and would inure to the benefit of the country as far as the drive to increase internet penetration in the country is concerned.

Mr Tevie said in order to push Internet penetration in the country, “we have to make it possible for entities to come in to raise the number of available handsets on the market.”

“These spectrums are part of the dividends we will be getting from migration from analogue to DTT,” he said, adding that “this is a very capital-intensive business and if the entities do not have enough funds, it will defeat the purpose of the sale of the spectrum, for which reason it will be difficult to deploy the networks.”

Conclusion

As the saying goes, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them”. This is relevant today because the ICT chamber members are struggling to raise the needed capital to play their role as per the licence given them.

It is obvious what is happening and the country cannot wait any longer because the rest of the world is ‘speeding’ and Ghana cannot be left out.

What is necessary is for the NCA and the government to ensure that it does not renege on its position to ensure that foreign companies acquiring the licence should have at least 35 per cent local ownership.

The NCA must also find ways to ensure that the initial investment made by the local companies does not go waste even as it invites new entrants.