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Politics, reality of telephone subscriber registration in emerging markets

•Continued from last week

By Titi Omo-Ettu

From here to where?
I claim the origin of a  call for such registration of subscriber information when in 2002 the demand for mobile phones commenced rising in Nigeria. I mentioned it as a passing comment at the end of a Press Conference and I observed that only one of all the journalists who were at the Press Conference used my call as report.

NCC Boss
NCC Boss

When I asked two of those who did not use it why what I said did not merit reporting, one said he did not understand what I said while the other said his editor did not see it as newsworthy and that I was saying something different from what everybody else was saying. I had asked then how his editor defined news. Fortunately 6 years after that it dawned on us that we needed to start accounting for subscriber registration and the NCC latched on and started its approach which has so far almost received industry acceptance, far ahead of implementation day, that it is a necessary intervention.

Although Nigerians have generally appreciated the attainments of the NCC, some folks who have personal issues with specific officials of the Commission raised their enmity to a point where nothing mattered to them in the process of blindly fighting their enemy. For his personal attributes and achievements, the executive Vice Chairman of the Commission, to be specific, has paid his dues in the industry not by sitting where he sits now but by previous contributions which those who write history are probably documenting. Unfortunately, he has been falsely equated to being the same as the Commission. And that was the work of the media.

Or how do you read the decision of the Commission on a matter which only the Commission is empowered to take under the operating law being regarded as the decision of one man and that mindlessly leading to crafting faked protest letter, turning the anti-graft agency into a rottweiler, muscle flexing and emotional rabble rousing. But that is another matter different from the subject at hand.

The actual issue here is that in a world far removed from an ‘information-as-consumption’ one where telecom news is dominated mobile phone features such as video camera and hands-free Voice Control; where the focus is on developing software for Android based 3G mobile phones and services which is based around Google’s Android mobile platform software; there is a completely different story to tell. One in which telecommunication, though traveled a different path, is no less remarkable but rather transformational and empowering.

In emerging markets, the mobile phone is fast becoming a fashion accessory (e-shekel’s industry study report on mobile telephony a few years back said that much of the Nigerian market); the consumer is not preoccupied only with sleek black and silver handsets but also with the root function of communication. In emerging markets in the days of old, power was wielded through the gun – military coups and countercoups. However the mobile phone is the ‘tool’ in today’s handheld combat.

It puts the mobile phone at the centre of the efficacy of the new social media as a news distribution tool, and its usefulness as an agent of political change. One thing is certain: in a period or country of socio-political instability where traditional journalists are either constrained or expelled, the mobile phone camera, rather than the TV camera, would play a crucial role in keeping the outside world informed.

The Success

From an economic perspective, the figures on subscription in these emerging markets are not bad either. GSMA back in 2007 reported that of the one million people who became new mobile phone subscribers everyday, about 85% live in emerging markets. Anecdotal evidence supported by  UN’s Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reveal that an enormous number of people now rely on mobile phones to run their small businesses transforming and augmenting the already existent entrepreneurial culture.

Mobile telephony has been socio-politically and commercially successful where other top down food and aid strategies for the underdeveloped world of the last 60 years have failed because as Iqbal Quadir, Grameen Phone founder in Bangladesh, told experts gathered for a Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) Global conference in 2005, it recognises that development is ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’. Meaning what in other words? Of course that democracy and development are now equivalents.

This success is down to the fact that mobile connectivity circumvents some important obstacles but most notably it is not tied to the provision of physical and immovable infrastructure which culturally and historically  benefited those people/authorities who award and win these contracts (a la ITT) over the people themselves; mobile networks unlike fixed-line telephony can be quickly and fairly inexpensively provided; mobile telephony is flexible often based on prepaid subscriptions which do not require complicated bureaucratic systems.

The success is not simply a numbers game. There are ripple effects of mobile telephony as an evolution of ICT is evident in the changes in  services-oriented business strategies shaping e-businesses in recent years. In a wide range of industries from agriculture to tourism which are of great importance for emerging markets, competitiveness is influenced by the integration of information systems inside the enterprises and with those of stakeholders and business partners.

For example also singled out for praise by UNCTAD is ChileCompra – Chile’s centralized public-sector procurement system which benefits both government agencies and private companies by making procurement competitive and transparent; by the end of 2004, 879 public agencies and municipalities and more than 100,000 providers were registered.

In Asian countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia there are telecentres such as Pallitathya (in Bangladesh) and the Partnerships for E-prosperity for the Poor in Indonesia are providing farmers with valuable knowledge on combating crop insects and improving breeding techniques.

E-Choupal in India is a commodity services programme supporting farmers through information “kiosks” that provide real-time information on commodity prices along with customized agricultural knowledge, a supply chain for farm inputs, and a direct-marketing channel for farm produce. This is a clear-cut case where technology is leveraged for development playing a role in not only supporting  livelihoods i.e. raising living standards among the poor, but also developing basic ICT skills  for the development of economic opportunities — such as e-business training — or provide training to support the development of business and/or occupational skills.

The Challenge

It is intellectually lazy as well as factually inaccurate to treat emerging markets as a homogenous group. While there is no doubt that mobile telephony is rapidly progressing in a pretty impressive fashion in some parts namely Latin America and the Indian subcontinent, in others mobile telephony faces the systemic problems that hamper the full utilisation of the endless possibilities ICT offers. What are the challenges that mobile telephony specifically and ICT in general face in these parts of developing world?. In rural, usually agro-centred, Africa the picture is not so rosy.

These rural areas continue to be less well served; universal access to such phone service remains a challenge due to a lack of commercial distribution channels. While mobile phones have become affordable to a lot of people, high rates of poverty make even less costly mobile phones still too expensive. One response to these challenges can come from government in meeting the entrepreneurial hole and formulate policies that encourage competition and investment in mobile telephony that is underlaid by a stable regulatory framework. That in a way captures Nigeria’s strong area if it is not disrupted by emerging upstarts.

The State as an interventionist

In this model Governments may consider in order to enhance the positive development which will work on combination of strategies:

Eliminate or Restrict choice. Regulate in such a way as to either restrict or entirely eliminate the options available to people choice, with the aim of enhancing skills or example through compulsory ICT courses at primary and secondary schools.

Guide choices through incentives. Regulations can be offered that guide choices by fiscal and other incentives, for example offering tax-breaks for the purchase of computer and accessories used by businesses and organisations.
Enabling choice: creating an environment which enables individuals to change their behaviour. Textvoting for example could be an implication of improved mobile telephony network coverage and a growing subscriber base. Did you listen to and watch President Obama speak in Ghana?

Provide information. Inform and educate the public, for example as part of campaigns to encourage people to use mobile phones ICT. And so on and so on.

Provision of ICT as a public good for the public good

The role of government should be to engender a cultural shift in which ICT both in terms of accessibility and implementation should be perceived as public goods.  In economic terms, these public goods are characterised by two principal properties: they are nonrival and non-excludable.

The nonrival property means one person’s access to ICT does not affect other people’s ability to do so and the non-excludable property means it is practically impossible to prevent everyone from doing so. ICT should be viewed as infrastructural arrangements such as roads or schools.

The term ‘public good’ is also used here to denote what is a ‘public service’ i.e. a resource that responds to important needs of members of the population, and that are managed by the state in a way that ensures that the needs are addressed in a fair and effective manner. In this sense, ICT as a public service is a facility and/or resource that is valuable to all citizens, whose availability and access is unlimited but not necessarily free of charge.

In conclusion the problem is that as it stands particularly in Africa, mobile telephony, or telephony as a whole, as part of the ICT paradigm is undertaken wholly by the private sector. Unlike in the developed world where it is in competition with the state (later privatised) provider, telecoms services, it would appear, are provided on the sole basis of a commercial imperative which is centred on a core few who can afford it rather than the altruistic (and of course commercial) imperative  to ensure that everyone (including the state) receives the benefits.

The state needs to establish a national ICT system with the main objective of delivering a public service that, like other provision such as education or health, the need it addresses is considered too important to be left to private suppliers alone to whom equity and fairness considerations are not paramount. We are not saying government should go into production of services but that it lead by putting a compliant policy framework which can get us there.

The prognosis is optimism and not egotism. A lot done but a lot more to do. The future is now.

To leapfrog into that future is a tripod of immediate requirements. An update of the telecommunications policy, a restructuring of the industry that can be truly called the information and communications technology industry, and a commitment to investment in broadband internet and rural access.
Mr. Titi Omo-Ettu, telecommunications engineer,
is Vice President of Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria, COREN.



Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.