The explosion in technology which ushered in the information age has become the basis for defining power in the modern world.
It is a widely accepted fact that no modern economy can develop without an integral information technology.
Consequently, the ability to easily access and share information and stimulate the creation of new ideas is viewed as essential to maintaining a strong economy and enhancing quality life of citizens.
Telecommunications networks are now making it possible for developing countries to participate in the world economy in ways that simply were not possible in the past.
Communications tools such as telephony, internet and broadband are increasingly critical to economic success and the citizen’s personal advancement.
The internet serves many functions – as virtual community, electorate marketplace, and information source/entertainment center, among others.
Through high speed internet, we can create new businesses or facilitate the delivery of basic services such as health, finance and education.
Available data from the International Telecommunications Union has shown that flows of international telephone traffic closely mirror the patterns of international trade. Indeed, variations in telephone traffic can be used as a leading indicator of national economic performance.
In agriculture, easier and faster access to up-to-date market and price information assists farmers and rural-based traders in their businesses.
Telecommunications can also deliver better access to information on improved seeds, availability of fertilizers, weather forecasting, pest control and other agricultural-related services.
Furthermore, telecommunications play an important role in politics and governance, by enhancing a government’s ability to provide security for its citizens, protect its borders and more efficiently handle civil emergencies and national disaster.
In turn, the citizens gain easier access to government and greater awareness of government programmes and activities. For instance, social media like facebook, twitter among others.
Traditionally, telecommunications had over the years been regarded as public utility provided by government.
However the need to improve services, encourage competition and attract private investment has led to the wave of privatization and sector liberation since the 80’s.
As at the beginning of 2008, nearly all countries in the world have either fully or partially privatized their incumbent operators and opened up the sector market liberalization.
In African with 52 countries, this wave of market liberation has also seen Africa transform to an ICT enabled region, though a lot more needs to be done in the area of penetration of internet and broadband.
On a global level, there are about 150 countries that have established independent regulatory agencies (the ITU: Trends report).
The advances in the last twenty years notwithstanding, in number of countries in Africa, the incumbent operators still retain very strong control of certain segments of the market showing the growth in those markets.
These incumbents are quite often, protected unnecessarily, thereby limiting competition, privatization and commercialization
In some cases where the incumbents have been partly privatized, the selected partners could be those with links in government circles who would be in a position to leverage such connections in influencing delays in opening up of the markets to competition.
In few African nations, exclusivity for the incumbents has been known to have been negotiated for upwards of 10 to 15yeas for example in the Fixed line Networks and International gateway services.
It is advised that where exclusivity still exists for the incumbents, such exclusivity should only be considered if it is for a number of service providers (at least two) so as to provide choice and encourage optimal investments while ensuring that competition exist.
The rapid progress made in the telecom industry in the past 11 years in Africa has largely been as a result of the liberalized market, but even in a liberalized environment, government still has a vital role to play in growing the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure and ensuring a competitive environment that will reduce prices and make services more available and affordable.
Government best serves the industry through the establishment of strong regulatory institutions. The regulator’s role is to encourage competition, remove barriers to market entry, oversee interconnection of new operators with incumbents, monitor tariffs and quality of service, protect consumer rights and ensure the provision of telephone services for all.
Africa’s immediate requirement for local access to the telephone network is enormous and the required capital and time investment needed to compete is still huge.
Market reform has helped to accelerate investment flow into this vital sector, resulting in rapid roll out of networks, but we still require optic fiber highways within and between African nations.
The rapid rate of deployment means faster access to telecommunications facilities and consequently faster pace of national economic development and growth.
The Regulator is also today faced with the challenge of keeping pace with technological developments.
According to Ernest Ndukwe, immediate past executive vice chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), “convergence is changing businesses, equipment and services we have been accustomed to, in their place new companies, technologies, equipment and services are emerging”.
New challenges are also arising from these rapid changes. Therefore, new skill in multi-sector, multi-technology regulations will be needed. Security issues have assumed new dimension, with growing incidence of Cybercrime, identity theft, among others. Laws would therefore need to be upgraded to cover new areas such as electronic transactions, e-commercial and cyber security, and so on”.
Indeed privacy of transaction is constantly being threatened and the same consumers that are to benefit from the new technologies and services will be demanding even more protection from the Regulators.
Telecommunications is an essential infrastructure of the information economy and therefore countries that lack sufficient access to modern telecommunications networks, will find it difficult to be effectively integrated into the global economy.
The role of the regulator is critical to the attainment of the goal of an equitable and socially inclusive information society.