The importance of the digital economy in the 21st Century cannot be overstated. From a means of improving information dissemination, to a vehicle for electronic commerce, to a facilitator of payments, investment and the creation of virtual employment markets, the digital economy is the now economy. However, none of the substantial gains available from this digital world are accessible without infrastructure. The equipment, cabling and structures that are required to connect devices and relay communications are the very backbone of the digital economy.
The policy framework upon which infrastructure is founded is, in turn, of key significance. In order to leverage the digital economy for greater intra-African trade, the way infrastructure is regulated, and how policies are harmonised, is of major importance. This blog will give a short overview of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of continental Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure policy.
The importance of ICT infrastructure and the continental policy that can either advance or impede it is made plain when one considers the ‘digital divide’ facing Africa. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (AAI) publishes annual reports on the progress made in bridging the digital divide in ‘global south’ developing countries. While all regions have made progress over the past five years, Africa remains the lowest scoring on the Affordability Drivers Index (ADI).
The cost of broadband is related to the expense of infrastructure, the cost and availability of finance and also the extent to which the market is competitive. High infrastructure costs restrict connectivity to urban and sub-urban areas, which exacerbates the rural-urban divide. Geographic and terrain considerations are also important in Africa – massive countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Chad are expensive to cover with fixed or wireless networks. Furthermore, Africa has 13 landlocked countries, which consequently do not have direct access to undersea cables. Broadband penetration is usually lower and costs higher in such countries
Developing countries usually face higher costs of capital, due to their lower investment grading. The cost of broadband is related to the expense of infrastructure as well as the cost and availability of finance. High infrastructure costs restrict connectivity to urban and sub-urban areas, which exacerbates the rural-urban divide.
Even so, according to the AAI 2020 Affordability Report , investment into ICT infrastructure is growing strongly, but in order to leverage continental benefits, attention is now needed on how this infrastructure is regulated
What then are the main areas of focus of ICT infrastructure policy? Firstly, cross-border spectrum (frequency) coordination, which falls under communication regulations. This refers to how frequency bands are allocated; with a continental approach suggesting the harmonisation of these policies.
Secondly, a focus on universal access and wider availability of ICT services provision, to bridge the digital divide. This also relates to industrial and investment policy.
Thirdly, cybersecurity, which relates to hardware as well as software. Software cyber security is not new and has an approximately twenty-year history; existing policy frameworks are in place. However, data privacy, ownership, sovereign data and the security of server farms and communication equipment have become important issues. This is because cybercrime is no longer just in the realm of corporate entities but now extends to cyber terrorism and cyber warfare as well. Election interference, free speech and censorship as they relate to the internet have become important issues of late, and very recently, Uganda imposed an internet blackout in the run-up to an election.
Fourthly, cross border interconnection refers to the ability of citizens (and mobile access contract holders in one country) to access the network of foreign countries they may visit, with continuity and at reasonable, transparent rates. This falls under the communication regulations of national governments.
Finally, analog to digital broadcasting migration refers to the movement away from old broadcasting technology to the encompassing digital realm. This will permit the operation of ‘new’ providers of entertainment and the adoption of newer technologies to receive broadcasts. For example, a mobile device is now capable of receiving streaming entertainment subscription services that were previously the domain only of digital satellite services. This policy area, which also falls under communication regulations, relates to the competitiveness and affordability of digital broadcast services.
Why would harmonisation be desirable for the above? Harmonising spectrum would prevent protocol clashes between countries (for example, radio frequency (RF) usage clashing with mobile frequency (GSM) use) as well as permitting the use of the same relay equipment in different countries, without needing adjustment.
A harmonised approach to universal access would motivate for the pooling of infrastructure and special attention to access by landlocked countries. Investment protocols could require that this be taken into account, so that investment into infrastructure for financially ‘marginal’ market regions could be incentivised.
Harmonising the approach to cross border interconnection would be pro cross-border trade. Boosting trade requires freer cross-border movement of persons, especially in services trade, and the ability to easily connect across borders is important.
Finally, the harmonisation of digital broadcasting will allow adoption of modern, more efficient technology and the cross-border operation of service providers, leading to economies of scale.
The need for the deliberate harmonisation of policies and regulations pertaining to ICT infrastructure can be better understood when one compares the situation of the AfCFTA with that of the most integrated bloc in the world, the European Union (EU). The EU was well integrated before the digital economy arose (around the mid 2000s). As such, policies could be developed around the existing integration of goods and services markets. In addition there is a high degree of intra-industry trade in the EU, so ICT service providers were able to begin to operate cross-border and competitive pressures ensured efficient supply.
By contrast, the African Union was not integrated before the digital economy and ICT infrastructure supply developed in countries ‘in isolation’. This is why ICT infrastructure policy needs to be actively harmonised in a process managed at the continental level.
There are two approaches to the national transposition process of the continental framework. In one approach, the AfCFTA could add an imperative to harmonisation to the trade in services agenda, which does address regulatory cooperation frameworks. An alternative approach is for the AfCFTA to devise a protocol - a ‘model’ ICT bill - and then require member states to follow this as a guideline in updating their respective regulatory frameworks. These would be non-binding guidelines, meaning that the MS would each need to commit to implementation. However, since the AfCFTA Secretariat is mandated to assist with implementation of the agreements, the guidelines could be made their responsibility and competence.
The harmonisation process could then happen in a phased manner, the first phase being that where the policy and regulatory framework is developed in conjunction with member states and as a negotiated deliverable. The second phase would comprise the national implementation of policies and regulations already agreed to.
Prior experience with African REC’s transposition of regional frameworks has shown that some MS struggle to harmonise, or lags occur in implementation. Technical and managerial assistance may be required.
In conclusion, well designed, transparent, consistent and effective ICT infrastructure policy and regulation is clearly a critical driver of the success of entry of nation states into the digital economy. However, across Africa, policy and regulatory frameworks differ in respect to: spectrum, access to broadband (market structures may be uncompetitive), cybersecurity, cross-border interconnection and analog/digital broadcasting adoption. These roadblocks are in addition to the factors driving the digital divide in Africa and the headwinds created by the global pandemic of 2020 . Whilst infrastructure investment continues to grow, attention to the policy framework at the continental level is necessary to leverage the full gains to growing connectivity. As infrastructure-driven ICT services grow in the continent, services and goods trade volumes can both be expected to benefit.
By John Stuart
John Stuart is an economist and policy analyst with special interests in trade, economic integration, data visualisation and economic modelling. He began his career in academia at Rhodes University and later the University of Cape Town, after which he entered private consulting first with AFReC (Pty) Ltd and subsequently with PBS (Pty) Ltd. Besides economics research and teaching, he has experience in project management, general management, public sector performance management, systems analysis and entrepreneurship. He holds an M. Com degree in Economics from the University of Natal (Durban).
 African Union. 2008. pdfReference Framework for Harmonisation of Telecommunication and ICT policies and Regulation in Africa (357 KB) . And also: African Union. (undated). Harmonising Telecommunications
 I am grateful to Trudi Hartzenberg for the preceding points.
 For example, the fallout of the global pandemic has led to the pull back in some countries, of 5G testing and rollout. It has also led to the failure of Google’s Loon project , which sought to extend access in Kenya and Mozambique through the use of Wi-Fi balloons. See: https://weetracker.com/2021/01/24/kenya-internet-balloons-5g/