Farewell 2019: A Review of ICT Initiatives in Liberia

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By Dr. Darren Wilkins ([email protected] | 0777129092-0886703789)

It has become traditional that at the end of every year we do a review of Information and Communication Technology or ICT achievements, activities, projects and, even those challenges that were experienced during the year. For some, this review facilitates planning for the subsequent year; while for others, this review allows them to gauge ICT progress or failures in their respective sectors. Whatever the case or reason, a review is always necessary to give us an idea of where we are, lessons learned and to serve as a guide for future activities in the coming year.

Unlike 2018 which was a relatively slow year for ICTs in Liberia, 2019 was an exciting year that brought a bit of vivacity in ICTs in various sectors, especially the ICT sector. And, despite the totally emasculated beginning, this year epitomized a struggling, yet persevering ICT sector whose impact has been felt in many other sectors of the nation. This article reviews the most significant happenings in the year 2019. This does not mean that other ICT initiatives are of little or no consequence, but since we have limited space, it is only prudent to focus on those considered “most significant happenings of 2019” in ICT in Liberia. I will begin with the major players of our ICT sector and then move on to other areas including the business sector, academia, civil society, et al.

The Policy maker-Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications: The year in review saw the signing of the long awaited National ICT Policy 2019-2024, by the President of the Republic of Liberia, Dr. George M. Weah. The Policy is a quinquennial document that will guide the ICT sector for the next five years.

The year 2019 also saw the launching of GovNet, which is the Government of Liberia’s secure network on which all e-government activities are expected to run.

The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications also in collaboration with USAID-Digital Liberia E-government Program, certificated about 46 individuals as Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and assistant CIOs. These individuals had participated in three months of e-government training and preparations to form part of the CIO Regime. The CIO Regime is an amalgamation of government CIOs under the supervision of the Chief Information Officer of the Republic of Liberia (CIO-RL), with the task of handling all Government of Liberia e-government activities.

Finally, the Ministry was also engaged in a plethora of activities involving Cybersecurity. Apart from attending international conferences, meetings, etc, on cybersecurity, the Ministry collaborated with the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) to develop Liberia’s Cybersecurity Policy and Strategy.

The Regulator- Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA):  In the latter part of 2018, the LTA proposed a price floor for both voice calls and data. The intent of the price floor–which sparked a blitzkrieg of rejections from the public–was to end the price war between Orange-Liberia and Lonestar MTN. The compelling narrative had to do with “pricing below cost”, something which has given MNOs dominance because they have Significant Marketing Powers (SMP). Subsequently, in the latter part of this year (2019), the LTA moved on with the enforcement of the new regulation which sparked yet again, another controversy, but endures. Hitherto the writing of this article, the LTA is yet to provide statistics on the impact of this regulation, something that may spark another controversy in the coming future.

In the area of cybersecurity and as I mentioned above, the MoPT in collaboration with LTA developed a cybersecurity policy and strategy for the nation. These two documents involve and will kindle several other actions/activities to ensure that Liberia is ready for the much sought digital economy and ultimately, a “Digital Liberia”.

A more significant move by the LTA is the work being done to retrieve Liberia’s country code top level domain (CCTLD)-the .LR. Under leadership of Chairman Ivan Brown and the Commissioner for Engineering, Hon. Zotawon Titus, a significant amount of progress has been made, triggering and facilitating the path to retrieving the much sought CCTLD. Currently, the CCTLD is being managed by a volunteer Registrar and Internet Hall of Famer, Mr. Randy Bush.

Despite the achievements above, substantial challenges endure, especially in the development of convergent licensing regimes, the provision of accurate data and statistics to enable investors make informed decisions, the enforcement of standards, regulations and policies, in particular those pertinent to electronic transactions and cyber security.

The National Operator- LIBTELCO our national has been involved in a lot of activities including the launching of its IPTV services and City Wifi internet services. The corporation, in collaboration with the MoPT and USAID-DLEG launched GOVNET during the course of the year. GovNet as I mentioned above, is the Government’s network that is supposed to “fuel” all e-government programs. Despite all of its achievements and its 20% share in the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) optical fiber cable (in Liberia managed by the Cable Consortium of Liberia), LIBTELCO still has major challenges that needs to be addressed in order to vehemently compete with other players in the sector. Hopefully, in 2020 a mechanism will be put in place to bring some vibrancy back to the state-owned telecom provider.

Other players in the ICT Sector: Orange-Liberia, formerly Cellcom, has built its fiber optic network in Monrovia and has gone beyond Montserrado County. Those familiar with the Company’s operations seem to believe that the Company is expected to expand as far as Lougatuo. Hitherto the writing of this article that network expansion has not occurred. Hopefully, in the coming here, this will happen. If this happens, we will be close to getting the much needed national backbone that will allow rural Liberia enjoy better access to ICT. As far as the Government is concern when it comes to the national back, it is not a thing that could happen anytime soon. Why; because, there has been absolutely no demonstrable action or indication that the Government of Liberia is ready or willing (not any time soon) to invest the estimated $65 million that is needed to build the national backbone, especially when it has other pressing matters at hand.

Lonestar MTN has in recent times improved its services and continues to provide a myriad of services and promotions that are attractive to its customers. I am not sure whether there are any plans on the deployment of a fiber optic network as is being done by Orange-Liberia. We’ll see what happens next year (2020).

CSquared-Liberia has completed building its 200 KM network and is now fully operational.

E-Government and E – applications: They year 2019 saw a few e-government initiatives even though; we did not see or hear about any major developments in the area of e-Applications. The Government of Liberia’s e-Government strategy which is the guide to digital transformation has is still being upgraded to reflect the new changes and new demands. It is expected to be sent to cabinet for deliberations and consensus, and subsequently, for the President’s signature.

A few Ministries, Agencies, and Commissions (MACS) have managed to revamp their websites while others are contemplating on the integration of new ICT systems, although in silos. This continues to happen because nothing has been done about the creation of a centralized system that provides shared services, which the previous regime started.

Academia/Education: Tertiary institutions in particular,  have the responsibility to build human capacity for Liberia to leapfrog economic development through ICTs. The year 2019 saw efforts by many tertiary institutions to create ICT-driven environments for the enhancement of learning, instruction and research. One tertiary institution that made significant strides in 2019 is the state-owned University of Liberia. The University of Liberia has begun a robust digital transformation that began with establishment of an Office of Information Technology, the appointment of a Chief Information Officer/Vice President for ICT (who is expected to drive this transformation), and the deployment (through the assistance of USAID) of a modern campus network connected to the ACE fiber optic cable.

The University of Liberia has also been flirting with an online learning system which is expected to be a reality in the near future. In addition, the University has been working out modalities to begin a baccalaureate programs in Computer Science, Information Technology and Management Information System (MIS), to cater to the needs of students seeking to obtain baccalaureate degrees in those areas.

At the lower level, there are many secondary institutions that have begun their own digital transformation. B. W. Harris School is one institution that has renowned for its robust technology integration initiatives, as are several others in Monrovia and other parts of the country.

Liberia Research and Education Network (LRREN): In the latter part of 2018, we saw the establishment of the Liberia Research and Education Network. This year, significant strides were made in making the LRREN fully functional. We saw the creation of the board of directors; the appointment of an acting CEO and an CTO, a request for Special Purpose ISP License to the LTA, a request for capacity to the Government of Liberia through the Cable Consortium of Liberia (CCL), the training of universities’ and colleges ICT staff, the upgrading of their campus networks and so on. No doubt, a significant amount of progress has been made in the establishment of the LRREN.

Finally, the ICT has become a fundamental pillar for all sectors. No sector can grow without relying on ICT, hence, digital transformation must be a responsibility shared among all sectors. We are approaching a new year; we anticipate a paradigm shift that will place a major focus on ICTs. We have come a long way with very little to show, yet, the opportunity to leapfrog our economic development through ICT continues to avail itself. We must take advantage of this opportunity and with an unprecedented amount of rapidity.

Let me end by thanking those of you who take the time to read the Daily Observer newspaper, especially this column both in print and electronic format. We look forward to a very exciting 2020.

Until Next Year,

Carpe diem!!!

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