Speech by Kofi Bentil, to
THE FIFTH LEGISLATURE OF THE ECOWAS PARLIAMENT DELOCALISED MEETING OF THE JOINT COMMITTEE ON:
Political Affairs, Peace, Security and African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) / Legal Affairs and Human Rights / Telecommunications and Information Technology (TIT) Winneba, Ghana
– 27th to 31st July 2021
PART 1: MANAGING THE HEN WHICH LAYS THE GOLDEN EGG
1.The purpose of all governance is human progress. That is the main product of development. All the many things governments and institutions like the ECOWAS Parliament and its ancillary bodies do has one overriding goal, the progress of society, to banish poverty, and to build a good society. This is the holy grail of governance and what has brought us here.
2. The industrial revolution ended a few decades ago. We are firmly in the information age. It is trite knowledge now that Information per se, and its manipulation, and the technology by which it is generated, managed, passed around, consumed etc. is crucial for development. So we seek progress, which is delivered by development and development is driven today by information and all that goes with it. This is why we need to think through the issue of information technology as we have gathered here to do.
3. Development is the goal, but history has also shown us that equitable development is what we need in order not to upset our societies. Even or equitable development is imperative for steady progress and peace in society. History has shown us that uneven development leads to tyranny, abuse and deprivation and ultimately wars.
4. A sure way to achieve equitable development is through the generation and management of relevant Information. Information gives knowledge and awareness, knowledge and awareness directly affect the understanding of rights and responsibilities in society; understanding rights and responsibilities enables people to defend, uphold and promote them. Defending and upholding and promoting rights and responsibilities directly affect development, peace and security which is what this meeting is seeking to understand. The generation and management of information which delivers all these is done with telecoms technology! These are therefore interconnected.
5. Telecoms is the most effective way humans have devised to communicate thus removing the physical distance barrier, something only gods could do. When humans discovered telecoms (Morse code) the first message sent was “what hath GOD wrought” as in what an awesome thing GOD MADE… telecoms is truly stuff of the gods!
6. Telecoms are at the centre and are the driver of the information age which is the era we presently live in. This epoch must be understood alongside what each of the ‘Ages’ or Epochs meant to humanity. Development has been driven by these epochs,
- First the Agrarian Age, when humans learned to grow food and settle in places.
- Then the industrial revolution when humans learnt to use machines instead of simple tools, which brought a whole new level of development to humanity and moved us from being subject to the elements to mastering them and then
- the use of complex machines like Airplanes and other powered vehicles, these equipped humans to harness the power of Air, Land and Sea which used to be barriers, converting them to resources and ‘bridges’; for example we took to the air and the seas in airplanes and giant ships and travelled the globe, in effect we converted the barrier of distance and water to a bridge and united humanity for more progress.
- The energy revolution then came in with the expanded use of fossil fuels to power the industrial revolution to another level. This led to immense economic growth and poverty reduction, by ensuring easy transportation of large volumes of goods, people and services across the earth. The ability to move across long distances with ease alone multiplied economic viability of a person and all society many times over.
7. Then we entered the information revolution which was powered by electronics and the invention of the computer. The information revolution is a far more powerful form and extension of the energy revolution, it’s the phenomenon which moved humanity from posting paper letters to sending email, it is indeed profound, it reduced what could take from weeks to send a message by post, to an instant by WhatsApp or email.
- In the past we could post letters due to transportation but now we can instantly email and text and WhatsApp pictures and sound and movies. This immense power has the potential of improving lives on the same scale if we manage them better.
- If governments and entities like ECOWAS parliament can understand and harness this power, we could transform lives at this exponential rate and banish poverty altogether. Instead of waiting years to do this, we could effectively do it in almost an ‘instant’.
HOW ARE WE DOING IN WEST AFRICA
Between independence in the 1960s till the end of the millennium (2000), almost all West African governments poured millions into state telecoms companies and lost everything. They failed and never brought even basic telephony to the mass of our people, much more the broad spectrum of telecommunications systems, around the year 2000, we saw privatization of state telecoms entities and the licensing of private telecoms entities to provide telecommunications in West Africa, the most prominent being MTN.
- Lesson, governments have no way to make telecoms a success if they remain state owned!!
These private entities, despite all criticisms against them, have succeeded wildly despite the many challenges they have to deal with and actually delivered a wide spectrum of telecoms services to ordinary people at a price which even the poor could afford.
From ‘me gyina Airport na me kase yi’ i.e. I’m speaking to you from the airport’ to ‘me te borla so na me kasa yi’ …to wit ‘I’m sitting on a pile of garbage as I speak’
This was a joke in Ghana some time ago, of a garbage collector answering his phone whilst sitting on top of garbage. This was to laugh at those who answered their calls and tried to impress others by stating where they were answering from (ostensibly to show they were using a cell phone).
The point here however is that after privatizing telecoms even the poorest and lowliest could own one and actually get service.
- Lesson; – privatization is the most effective and efficient way to deliver telecom services to the mass of our people.
WE MUST HAVE ENABLING NOT STIFLING REGULATIONS
These private telecoms companies are the most taxed companies in West Africa, yet they receive very little government support for their businesses. We love to use them and then hate them…! As if they owe us everything! We give them almost nothing, no power, no connectivity infrastructure, so they have to pay to dig and string their own cables. Elsewhere the municipal system provides the channels for laying cables. They have to bring everything they need to operate and yet they are most taxed.
They are the proverbial hen which lays the golden egg, but this hen is not fed, but expected to lay its gold. Somehow they are able to do this and still make a profit by tariffs from the poor masses.
- Lesson: telecoms is profitable under any circumstance even in poor Africa
We must appreciate the hen that lays the golden eggs and not over burden it, there is a point where it will stop and we will suffer!!
Our governments invested taxes and delivered nothing, telcos invest their own money, deliver real service and then pay taxes on top! They truly need commendation! Telcos are also crucial for the future immediately ahead, so we need to foster closer strategic collaboration to enable them help us make the most of the information age confronting us.
We must appreciate that telecoms is more than a business it is a social good whose economic impact is far beyond taxes to government. Telecoms is a UTILITY. Utilities have far reaching collateral socio-cultural and economic effects beyond just the business and profit they make. It is our estimation (ImaniAfrica) that Telcos directly and indirectly employ 100m people across West Africa. In other words, if we closed down all telcos. 100m people will be economically impacted. This is a serious and requires careful management
Telecoms have been a game changer in jobs growth, taxes, providing crucial social utility, etc. etc., whose potential is obvious, but has still not been exhausted, there are areas such as telemedicine, online Education etc. which we have not tapped fully yet, so let’s keep supporting telecoms expansion, but it must be the private sector driven and government policy enabled.
To harness telecoms for Regional Development, peace, and security. Government and regulators must seek to do a number of things as a first step to ensure the following:
- Ubiquity and Reliability, (affordability takes care of itself)
- Require or Mandate Usage
- Encourage and Enable Usage
- Discourage avoidance and “under flying” for security reasons
- Ubiquity and Reliability, (affordability takes care of itself)
Ubiquity is key because if services are available, their usage follows. Ubiquity is not automatic because Telcos are businesses, and they only go where there’s profit. This has led to many nations spending money on rural telephony initiatives, as usual; most of these Government projects have failed leaving corruption and waste in their wake.
New ideas must be found to ensure ubiquity and reliability. Fortunately there are innovations which will solve this problem within the next 5 years (to discussed later)
- Require or Mandate Usage
It must be made mandatory that telecoms shall be used for the delivery of government services. And slowly private businesses and entities must be required to use online systems as well for e.g. government ID cards and online validation systems.
Blockchain technology and other innovations have improved security. Payments for, and delivery of government services must be online and less personal.
This is good for everyone especially governments. It is only the corrupt few who frustrate this and seek to benefit thereby. You must not allow them. More use of technology ‘raises the tide’ and everyone benefits. The key is to craft and deploy effective policy to achieve this.
- Encourage and Enable Usage
Beyond requirement by law, we must encourage the use of telecoms by reward. It costs everyone less to use telecoms than otherwise. Encouraging use by making it easier and cheaper will force greater use and therefore improve government services for all.
We must also encourage private entities to use telecoms more for e.g. National ID systems in replacement for other ID systems must be made mandatory and the private sector encouraged to use that government system instead of everyone issuing their own IDs. Some reward system could be given to promote this, for ex. the company that most innovatively uses the Nat ID system. This will give recognition and make the investment in the system get better return for everyone all round.
- Discourage avoidance and “under flying” for security reasons
Even if usage is required and encouraged, some persons will prefer to always fly under radar, for e.g. use cash in all transactions! Invariably these persons have something to hide. In all developed economies such persons are pressured to declare why they want to fly under radar, Modern economies always flag out such persons for questioning. We must move towards that because there are many advantages to it. Telecom based systems have the best security and enforcement of rules. E.g. queuing systems, timed logging in and out, generic ID systems cannot be easily faked for a particular purpose.
In many places today, if you cannot be found by Google, you are a security risk.
If well implemented such a system can even be used for censuses and other crucial information gathering and outreach, for social mobilization and tracking to ensure we leave no one behind in government interventions and services like education and health.
We must appreciate that the global movement towards increased technology use will not stop, it will get more intense to the point where we would be doing everything virtually money will be virtual etc. many things like certificates will be on blockchain, we need to get onto it and move along. Covid has forced us to admit that most things can be done virtually without physical presence.
It is also in our interest to tap into the big business of information. Technology companies are the most valuable today. They have long surpassed Gold and Oil companies many times over We need to push our people into it so we can also benefit from the data and business we generate. Instead of allowing others to own our data and monetize us. Ecowas has 350 m people we are immensely viable when we act together.
One way to encourage usage and discourage flying under radar is to avoid surveillance! Governments must avoid the chilling effect which comes from censorship or monitoring.
Achieving the goals
Basic requirements – ubiquity, reliability, affordability
If these are present, regional development will happen because information exchange is a catalyst for economic development. The opposite is true.
Assurance and reliability of intervention.
Peace is a byproduct of certainty. The certainty that if we call someone will respond quickly. It assures the victim and deters the criminal. Telecoms is the only way to ensure this on any scale. Whether at the personal level at home, or at the communal level in times of conflict, the assurance of a reliable communication system plus the assurance of definite response is a sure way to build the peace.
This is delivered by building a system which involves first responders backed by a telecoms system for locating victims after they report and responding effectively.
SECURITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS
All the requirements for peace and the assurance of response to crime and malfeasance. Requires a system and communication, for reporting and recording crime etc.
There are 2 paradigms for achieving this
- Government taxes and provides – this has not worked well in West Africa.
- Government allows telcos to provide end to end services and audits the services to determine how much tax rebate is due based on what they invest and do. Build manage and deploy the capability. They are given rebates for building and maintenance of the systems, and rebates for maintenance (whether used or not) and further rebate for deploying and usage.
The second paradigm has not been well explored and should be given a chance, mainly because the first has not yielded desirable results.
PART 2: DEALING WITH THE IMPENDING STARLINK DISRUPTION
Starlink is a High speed Broadband satellite internet system being constructed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX Company. The system will consist of tens of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit, delivering high speed internet and connectivity which is only rivalled by Fibre Optic cable systems. SpaceX intends to provide connectivity to underserved areas across the whole planet, as well as provide competitively priced service in more urbanized areas.
The cost of the decade-long project to design, build, and deploy the system was estimated by SpaceX in May 2018 to be at least US$ 10 billion. They already have all the money they need, and they also have their own rockets which launch the satellites into space.
SpaceX launches up to 60 satellites at a time. As of 26 May 2021, SpaceX has launched 1,737 Starlink satellites, (more than all the Satellites ever launched by all countries put together). They plan to launch up to 60 more every two weeks in 2021.
On 15 October 2019, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) submitted filings to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on SpaceX’s behalf to arrange spectrum for 30,000 additional Starlink satellites to supplement the 12,000 Starlink satellites already approved by the FCC
THIS SERVICE WILL REPLACE THE TELCOS OF TODAY AND LAUNCH ALL THE SERVICES THEY PRESENTLY PROVIDE AT A FRACTION OF THE COST AND ON A GLOBAL SCALE. Services to be provided include:
- RELIABLE FAST INTERNET
- BROADBAND SATELLITE PHONES AT A LAW COST FOR ALL CALL GLOBALLY
- TELECONFERENCING IN REAL TIME ON A GLOBAL SCALE
This will cause massive disruption of the telecoms industry as we know it, existing Telcos will see more than 50% of their value wiped out, but it is a most desirable disruption, which will finally bring connectivity to all humanity wherever they live on the planet!! This is a massive game changer.
On one hand it will kill a lot of telecoms companies but ultimately increase telecoms services many times over and make the world a better place, the bad news is that many companies and nations will lose out if they do not adjust properly to this reality. Some Companies will fail and nations will lose their hens which lay Golden Eggs! Starlink cannot be controlled by any one country!!
So those nations and companies which do not sit up and deal with this, will surely die out!!
Starlink is a huge regulatory opportunity and challenge. It holds the promise of delivering all that is desirable in telecoms, but leaders and regulators must figure out how to take full advantage of this and hopefully still get your golden eggs? It is possible but solutions will require thinking intensive innovations!
Starlink will be useful ultimately because it will truly bring connectivity to the poor, it will make satellite phones as common as mobile phones and affordable!
Balanced development requires the even distribution of utilities like communications, this technology will deliver reliable rural telephony infrastructure. In Ghana and elsewhere millions have been spent to implement rural telephony but almost all have failed.
Deploying rural telephony while imperative is also expensive, so innovation is required, and many have tried, Google, Facebook, Amazon etc.…none of them have seen any serious breakthrough until Starlink.
The greatest innovation so far for worldwide connectivity for that matter rural telephony on a planet-wide scale, and the one with the most promising outlook is Starlink.
It will be most desirable if West African nations hold a session on how to link up with Starlink NOW and shape our own usage by making great deals for West Africa.
We should get to work setting people up to take advantage of it and build great things to use it for which are Africa specific and useful. We have unique issues and should develop our own solutions.
How do we manage the disruption Starlink will cause? How do we manage the loss of our golden eggs (Telcos)?
Telcos will be heavily impacted, they may resist, but cannot prevail. We should be ahead of the curve and agree what to do and roll it out to minimize the damage of disruption, and the loss of revenue and economic benefits of Telcos, e.g. employment etc.
- A SESSION TO DISCUSS THE EFFECTS OF STARLINK
- AN ECOWAS TEAM TO APPROACH STARLINK AND REQUEST SPECIFIC PROGRAMS FOR US.
- AN ENGAGEMENT WITH TELCOS IN WEST AFRICA ON HOW TO DEAL WITH STARLINK
- AN ENGAGEMENT WITH BUSINESSES AND IT PROFESSIONALS
- A CLEAR STRATEGY FOR TAKING THE MOST ADVANTAGE OF THIS INNOVATION.
Telcos need not stop business; we should repurpose their infrastructure to urbanized usage and specialist applications. We should leave out the less commercial rural applications to Starlink.
Voice Telephony will be impacted once everyone has affordable satellite phones, but already Telcos are almost all data driven now, we must therefore figure how to work with Starlink to have them provide ubiquitous telephony. It will truly change lives if we can get information to everyone and perform government services like censuses and property location and addressing. We can actually mark goats and cattle herds with Starlink enabled technology and reduce or stop livestock stealing etc.
PEACE, SECURITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS will all be enhanced with the reliable deployment of telecommunications services across West Africa.
Government should employ very large scale applications to monitor and take charge of various aspects of governance. Application of appropriate technologies will actually reduce poverty, increase taxes and improve lives across West Africa.
It requires engaging with Elon Musk and his team and asking for the right things. He is African and will be happy to help and take credit for it, let’s allow him.
Poverty is our enemy; technology is our strongest weapon against poverty. What is required is a joint effort led by governments and regulators.
Government must always seek even equitable development. If governments team up with the private sector and enable ubiquity in telecoms availability and reliability, affordability will automatically follow and the benefits will accrue to the private business through wide usage and profits; and to governments in terms of reaching most of the population easily for social mobilization etc. Our people in West Africa will surely benefit in terms of ease of life and prosperity coming from using the most powerful technologies ever invented by man!