By Dr. Darren Wilkins (Email: [email protected] | Phone: 0777129092 & 0886703789)
We have reached the end of another year and, as has been our long-standing tradition, we try to look back at the past year to review key events and achievements in Liberia’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector. For those of us who obsessively monitor the global telecoms, media and technology (TMT) industries, it is safe to conclude that the Liberian ICT sector experienced a relatively slow and “quiet” 2018. This “quiet” period is a result of the advent of a new government and the genesis of a new political zeitgeist; we now call “Pro-poor”. The word “ProPoor”, which is now a ubiquitous way of referring to the new dispensation, is culled from the title of President Dr. George M. Weah’s Pro-poor Agenda for Development and Prosperity; the document that is expected to guide his administration for the next five years.
On January 22, 2018, after the inauguration of President Weah, a new national euphoria bourgeoned. That day saw the exodus of an old order and the advent of a new one; one that immediately changed the entire spectrum of our government. The “change” brought in a blitzkrieg of new entrants whose enthusiasm to handle the affairs of the Nation was uniquely unsurpassed. Yet, that enthusiasm was a phenomenon that those of us who have seen the multiple challenges this Nation faces, embraced with profound caution. Change had come and affected every sector of the Nation including the ICT sector.
Within the ICT sector, the leadership of the three major players (Policy Maker, Regulator and Operator) were changed bringing an amalgam of new players, each coming in with a new strategic plan. Furthermore, a major legislative change that might significantly impact the sector happened when the President, submitted his bill to the Legislature to remove the “tenure” status from all positions in Government that were protected by that status. The Liberia Telecommunications Authority, is one of those institutions that is protected by that status. We are hoping that the LTA is given an exception.
In addition, to the leadership and legislative changes, there are other activities and achievements that occurred in the sector during the period in review. Below, I take a stab at reviewing some of those activities and achievements. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of achievements and activities.
Policy and Regulation: The year in review saw the validation of the National ICT Policy 2018-2023, by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and major stakeholders. The Policy is a quinquennial document that will guide the ICT sector for the next five years. Earlier in the year, the LTA to an initiative that involved a revision of its Licensing regime to update licensees of the sector. The LTA also led a major arrest of a syndicate that was illegally using SIMBoxes in Liberia. In September, the LTA imposed a regulatory surcharge through an order (001-07-31-15), on all outbound international calls. In the latter part of this year, 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 and MTN. The compelling narrative had to do with “pricing below cost”, something which has given MNOs dominance because they have Significant Marketing Powers (SMP).
Despite the achievements above, substantial challenges endure, especially in the development of convergent licensing regimes, the enforcement of standards, regulations and policies, in particular those pertinent to electronic transactions and cyber security.
National Infrastructure: CSquared formerly Google, continues to build its metro fiber ring in Monrovia. It appears there is a delay in its completion since, according to the original plan, it should have gone live in 2018.
Orange, formerly Cellcom, is also building a network and has gone beyond Montserrado County. Those familiar with the Company’s operations suspect that it is expected to expand as far as Lougatuo. If this happens, we will be close to getting the much needed national backbone that will allow rural Liberia enjoy better access to ICT. Hitherto to this article, 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.
LIBTELCO the national operator I am told, is also trying to build a metro ring. The disadvantage here is that the company does not have the resources to compete with the likes of CSquared and Orange or Lonestar MTN. Even with a ring and its 20% shares in the ACE, there is still a lot of resources required to take over the market from the existing operators. But we remain optimistic that our Operator will withstand or even transcend the competition and be a major player.
Regional Infrastructure (ECOWAN): The West Africa Network or ECOWAN is expected to improve the connectivity between ECOWAS offices and affiliated organizations, and provide a robust platform for regional information systems. ECOWAN is an Intranet linking all member state capitals with broadband communications. It will serve as the Enterprise Information System for ECOWAS and will be connected to the global internet. ECOWAN is ECOWAS owned and operated, and accessed only by ECOWAS officials and affiliated organizations.
Regional Infrastructure (ECOWAS Power Pool-based Fibre Network): This network is intended to expand broadband access in the ECOWAS region by first leveraging the West Africa Power Pool’s (WAPP) communications infrastructure network, and linking the WAPP network to national and regional infrastructure to bridge connectivity gaps in the ECOWAS region.
All of these infrastructural development initiatives help solve existing last-mile challenges but also raise new ones associated with next generation innovation. But for now, we can be excited about the progress we have made thus far.
E-Government and E – applications: In one of his first acts, President Weah’s mandated the development of a Digital Registration System at the University of Liberia; a move which I was excited about, and one that gave me hope that the new President is an ICT-focused person. But, with the exception of the DRS at the UL, the Mobile Tax Payment system deployed by the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA), and the announcement made by the Government to pay salaries via mobile money, we did not see or hear about any major developments in the area of e-Government or e-Applications. The Government of Liberia’s e-Government strategy which is the guide to digital transformation, has not gone to cabinet for deliberations and consensus, nor has it gained the blessing of the President. 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 benefits from shared services, which the previous regime started.
Human Capacity Building: Tertiary institutions in particular, have the responsibility to build human capacity for Liberia to leapfrog economic development through ICTs. The year 2018 saw efforts by some tertiary institutions to build human capacity through ICTs and make changes in their curricular and pedagogical approaches. The AME University for example, piloted its first online learning system through its graduate program. In addition, the University has been working out modalities to begin a graduate program in Management Information System (MIS), to cater to the needs students obtaining baccalaureate degrees in IT/ICT/IS or Computer Science from other institutions. On the other hand, the University of Liberia has begun a robust digital transformation initiative that involves the appointment of a Chief Information Officer/Vice President for ICT, who is expected to drive this transformation.
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 renown for its robust technology integration initiatives, as are several others in Monrovia and other parts of the country.
Other Achievements: We saw the launching of the Liberia IT Student Union and the graduation ceremonies of Girls in ICTs, PROTEL (Protecting Children’s usage of the Internet), and many others. What attracted me the most this year, was the creation of a Student Information System by a group of young men known as Bridge Technology. There were several other achievements made this year. Unfortunately, this article may not suffice to tabulate all of those achievements. But it is safe to say that, while the year was relatively slow, some progress was made and we are hopeful that next year the ICT sector will make more achievements and move faster toward digital transformation.
Finally, the ICT sector 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. A new government and a new Sheriff have come into town. We look up to this Sheriff to bring the change we have all sought, for so many years.