Article by Dr Andani Kholinar
One of my passion projects is IT and artificial intelligence. Having spent six years in the US, I have come to appreciate the extreme value of IT in the development of any country and especially have come to believe that countries with the easiest and most equitable access to computing services including the internet will be the leaders in the 21st Century race for economic growth. I have read a few books on this subject, including Alasdair Gilchrist’s Industry 4.0 (2016) and Klaus Schwab’s The Fourth Industrial Revolution (2016). What most industry leaders all over the world agree is that the rate of adoption of technology, especially in the area of big data and artificial intelligence will make profound change on the nature of work and employable skills on the personal level; and economic growth and the relationship between the government and the governed at the societal level. Any government worth its salt have to focus heavily in IT if it aims to equip its citizens and nation to compete in the 21st Century global economy. In fact, as we can already see, countries who are masters of the IT revolution are reaping immense benefits by way of hard foreign currency they receive by way of selling computing hardware and software to the rest of the world. South Korea and China are two of the leading players in the game reaping high rewards because they have invested heavily in IT. Currently, South Korea has the most effective IT policy and broadband connectivity around the world at over 95% high-speed connectivity. In developing our own connectivity strategies, I think South Korea offers a great model to follow among other options.
[All that being said, I want to score the manifestos of the NDC and NPP regarding their proposals/performance when it comes to expanding broadband access to the majority of Ghanaians. I have tried to be objective as much as possible given the documents I have access to and the limited time frame to put this out. If you find something in this scoring that you disagree with, please let me know so we can have a constructive look forward.
The four primary documents I have used to do this scoring are: 1- NPP 2020 Manifesto, 2- NDC 2020 Manifesto, 3- The NDC 2016 Manifesto, and 4- National Broadband Policy and Implementation Strategy (2012). I have also leaned on news reports and industry analysis from Graphic Online, IT News Africa, Oxford Business Group, Business World, and NITA. If you have other sources that you think I should have consulted, please send them my way so I may read and update this article.
I am going to number my paragraphs for easy cross-referencing.]
1.1 PREVIOUS INVESTMENT:
a. Given that the two men leading the NPP and NDC have both led the country and have policy to boast of in the IT sector, it makes sense to look at what they have implemented during their respective tenures. Starting with the NPP, they mention 5 key policies (biometric national ID, Ghana Post GPS, MoMo Interoperability, Ghana.Gov Digital Payment Platform, & Universal QR Code) that they saw the need to highlight (page 170). I should also mention that they boasted of reducing the cost of data from $1.56 per Gigabyte in 2019 to $0.94 in 2020 (page 172).
b. From the NDC 2016 Manifesto, among the many boasts made, I want to highlight a few that I think are noteworthy: 800km Eastern Corridor Fibre Optic Project serving Ho to Bawku & Yendi to Tamale; University Connectivity at UG, UDS, KNUST, UCC, UCEW; & National Data Center (in Accra & Kumasi). I should add that the NDC listed a bunch of things even though good I thought were better suited for an MP or DCE not a whole national government (example: trained 2000 girls…page 61).
1.2 MY VERDICT:
a. Any serious look at investment in the broadband sector by these two administrations shows that the NDC did much more tangible investment than the NPP. It is very clear to see. While it is commendable for the government to undertake policies at the government level that will force citizens to adopt usage of the internet for government services (all five NPP policy boasts are along this line), this is woefully lacking in government helping citizens get access to affordable and accessible high-speed broadband. I have heard many NPP communicators tout Dr. Bawumia for delivering on IT improvement in Ghana by mentioning things like the Ghana Post GPS et al and I thought this was some pedestrian bottom-feeding political analysis. I actually did not expect these to be written as highlights of the NPP government’s successes in this all-important sector of the economy and future of Ghana.
b. The NDC on the other hand showcases a solid record of investing in the infrastructure that is needed for any serious broadband penetration to actually take place. The Eastern Corridor Fibre Optic cable is so important for the country and I think this is perhaps the most important factor in my scoring the NDC for the win in this sector. If you look at South Korea, they have a track record of a similar rigorous government intervention in the IT sector that has helped them become a global leader in broadband access. They have done so by giving loans and other policy frameworks to spur broadband penetration to all urban and rural sectors of their country. Left to the private sector, the Eastern corridor will most likely not have gotten connected to the Fibre Optic grid.
c. I was a bit surprised the NPP did not mention the fact that they oversaw the continuation and completion of additional phases of the NDC Fibre Optic plan in their manifesto. I guess mentioning it would have meant giving credit to their political opponent and I guess politicians will rather not mention an achievement if it means they will share the plaudits with their rivals. That project they saw to completion is arguably better than all the other 5 they included in their manifesto.
d. The NPP mentioned that they reduced data charges from $1.57 to $0.94 per Gigabyte but I do know how they got this figure. The single largest mobile data operator, MTN Ghana, charges 20 cedis per gigabyte (for its monthly plan) or 10 cedis per gigabyte (for its weekly plan). That’s $3.4 or $1.7 per gigabyte there. Maybe they are using Vodaphone’s charges of 10 cedis for 1.5 gigabytes (for their 15 days plan) or 20 cedis for 4 gigabytes (for their one-month plan). Averaging the cheapest of these two plans still gets you around $1.3 per gigabyte.
e. I haven’t lived in Ghana fully for the past six years so I can’t personally attest to whether the NPP have reduced data charges or not. What I can say is that my TWO recent summer holidays in Ghana in 2018 and 2019 were not pleasant when it came to data charges. Perhaps these cost reductions came into force this year (2020) as the manifesto says. I will like to hear from readers in Ghana how they feel about this cost-reduction claims.
a. The Promises made by the NPP on the IT sector by and large are vague. It will be very difficult to hold government accountable for a promise to create a “large local digital market in West Africa and beyond, and provide solutions to problems in the region” (page 172). Nonetheless, I think two noteworthy promises made in this document are the promise to reduce data cost by reducing taxes and licensing costs; and updating spectrum policy to expand access to rural areas (171-72).
b. In the NDC 2020 Manifesto, a few notable promises have been made among many vague promises just like the NPP did such as “ensure the efficient transfer of digital technologies and skills” (page 98). Who writes these things for these parties? Anyway, let’s get on lol. The NDC promises to 1- make access to internet universal and affordable across the country, 2- build Ghana Broadband Network with 5G, 3- ensure affordable licensing for operators to spur growth, 4- lay Fibre Optics along water pipes and electricity lines, 5- infrastructure sharing to reduce cost, and 6- increase public Wi-Fi through working with operators.
2.2 MY VERDICT
a. Clearly, this follows the same pattern as their record. Even though both manifestos sport vague and general promises that will be difficult for people to hold them accountable for, the NDC offers more concrete policy proposals than the NPP. Reading both documents, one starts to get the impression that the NDC actually did their homework on what is needed in this sector. I will not go as far as to say they are doing everything right (I will say why below in my final comments and recommendations) but far and away they offer the best policy framework on the development of broadband access in Ghana. Their model of robust government intervention by way of cost-sharing with the public sector (page 99) and most crucially the laying of Fibre cables alongside water pipes and electrical lines (page 98) puts them in the same vein of thinking as the South Korean government I have mentioned above. Many industry experts have made such recommendations before and the NDC’s inclusion of this point clearly tells me they have been doing some reading on this issue.
b. One thing I have noted in reading both manifestos is the fact that the NDC seems to have a clearly thoughtthrough process on this issue compared to the NPP. The NDC makes a lot of cross-referencing to various documents national and international whereas the NPP seems to be drafting a mediocre ad hoc document. I expected to see both manifestos mention the 2012 National Broadband Policy and Implementation Strategy. But given that this was developed under the NDC, I at least expected the NPP to have updated the strategy so they could make mention of some kind of national policy they are following so that their approach would appear less ad hoc and more cohesive and systematic. But they did not. I tried to see if there was any cohesive policy of the government by looking at the various news releases on the MOC website but they were mostly ephemeral news about the minister getting awards and recognition or in mildly good news inaugurating one or two girls ICT labs.
GOING FORWARD: CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
I think the NDC offers a superior record in investment in the IT sector, especially broadband access. I also think they offer better ideas for expanding access in the future. That is not really in contention. The NPP’s overall strategy (if there is any) is to offload everything to the private sector with a reduction of taxes. This is classic neoliberal policy approach that does not seem to have worked well anywhere else. Their other strategy is to engage in migrating government services online to force citizens to use the internet. This does not account for whether citizens have access or not. When I went home last year, I had a conversation with a young lady I had gone to Primary and JHS with and she mentioned a certification program they were supposed to do after completing their NABCO internship and it was all online (I can’t remember the exact details). But this sister (who lived in the heart of Tamale, opposite Afa Ajura Mosque) did not have a laptop to access the course. She did not even have a smartphone at the time. So, she was unable to complete the course. This is just an example of why such a government policy approach by the NPP only works for middle-class families with access to computing resources like laptops at home. I think these policies are good but without accompanying physical infrastructure, they will continue to fail as they have already. The South Korean government in the 90s and 2000s as part of their migration of government services online also undertook a policy known as “PC for Everyone” where the government subsidized computers for poorer Koreans. The reason being that broadband/4G/5G can only penetrate the population when they have devices (PCs, laptops, tablets, phones) that can connect to the network. This lack of access to computing equipment is why barely just over one-hundred thousand Ghanaians (mostly in Accra) have wireless broadband access out of a population of over 30 million and active data subscriptions of over 19 million. Just pushing everything to the private sector is not going to work. This risks creating a two-tier society where large swarths are left behind.
Two policy mentions in the NDC Manifesto gives me hope and apprehension about the future. The first one is the cost-sharing ideas they have. This looks very similar to the Korean model. And their investment in the Fibre Optic cable for the eastern corridor showcases their willingness to invest in and lay the groundwork for the private sector to take the lead. But if you look at the network penetration in these eastern corridor areas since the laying of the network, you will realize that the private network operators are still not investing as much as they should be given the groundwork having been laid. One thing the South Korean government has done is to make it mandatory for providers to extend services to rural areas if they want lucrative spectrum licenses. A future NDC government, or any government for that matter, could explore these options as well.
The second policy option they mention which gives me hope is the mention of utilizing the existing water pipe and electrical line networks to lay Fibre Optic cables. I think this is probably the best policy idea they have in their whole Manifesto. I am partial to this because I favor municipal broadband in the model of the US City of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I think the Ghanaian government should encourage municipal governments (assemblies and mayors) to pursue implementing their own municipal broadband systems. This will force the private sector to compete with the municipalities thereby extending access to communities and reducing cost to consumers. Competition is always good for business. Allowing only three private players (MTN, Vodafone, Airtel/Tigo) to monopolize the market is not good for consumers. In some places, it is only MTN or Vodaphone. When I visited Ghana last summer, I was paying more than twice the amount I am paying in the US for far inferior connection speeds. If you factor in the purchasing power parity between the US and Ghana, I was probably paying ten times. This is not right by any stretch of the imagination. Even though I didn’t see the NDC explicitly mention this as a policy goal, I feel like they might be going in that direction. I just want to say that if they are, they should be ready for a vicious fight with the private providers who currently monopolize the market. They should understudy Chattanooga and learn some lessons on how to handle this fight.
Overall, after reading various documents, I am not as pessimistic as I used to be about the future of broadband access in Ghana. At least one of the political parties is thinking critically about building key infrastructure for the sector. If nothing, the NDC manifesto, and I think articles like mine, will spur the NPP to start looking at this seriously. My summary recommendations will be to; 1- lay even more Fibre optic cables to link all the major towns in Ghana, 2- lay cables along our already established and extensive electricity lines around the country, 3- start allocating funds to municipalities who want to build their own affordable cable service like Chattanooga, and 4- invest in getting PCs, laptops, and other computing devices into the hands of the Ghanaian public.
FINAL VERDICT: The NDC wins the manifesto/record of investment in the expansion of broadband access in Ghana. They will make better stewards for Ghanaians in a 21st Century Economy.