Thursday, October 22, 2020

There is need for new entrants in the country’s fibre network space

Statistics show that Bofinet, the country’s leading fibre network provider and its existing competitors still have a lot of ground left to cover before the country can be anywhere near to being fully connected to internet.

And that is not all.

Even in areas already covered by Bofinet and others, there is need for investments in more modern fibre as some of those areas are covered using wireless, which while better than nothing, is clearly not ideal for an economy ambitious to go digital.

Subsequently, even in the cities, the broadband has not as yet reached the kind of speeds that are required to usher in a digital revolution that is already taking other parts of the world by storm.

And worse,  – the rural areas have been so terribly left behind.

For us as a country the digital divide is of appalling levels.

For rural areas to have even a remote hope of catching up, we need more players in the space currently dominated by Bofinet.

A bird’s overview of the geography of the country so far connected reveals that at the moment there is an unhealthy appetite on the part of Bofinet and its few competitors to invest mainly in the urban and populated eastern parts of the country.

This by no way means that there is no need in the western parts of the country left out.

In fact the black spots in the west are the areas with far greater needs.

We could do better, if only we could utilize our resources a bit wiser.

It is an economic and trade tragedy that as a country we have extra capacity at Botswana Power Corporation and Water Utilities Corporation that we have elected to leave idle.

If such capacity was harnessed we could overnight propel Botswana’s economy into a digital economy.

Politics, fight for turf and indecision are at the moment conspiring to keep and hold this country in the digital dark ages when it comes to rolling the fibre network, increasing broadband speed and with those ushering a much needed economic revolution inspired by digitalization.

Admittedly the last few years has seen Bofinet roll out fibre network across the country at a faster pace.

More and more homes and businesses are getting connected.

But we should not as a country exaggerate our success. It could have been much better had we chosen a better model given the resources at our disposal.

Additionally even in the cities, the speed of the internet is by no measure satisfactory, much less comparable to the ultra-speed that our peer countries are now either moving towards or already enjoying.

It is important to allow BPC and WUC to optimally utilize their infrastructure by allowing them to actively seek strategic partners that will fast-track their entry into this very important space.

This cannot happen unless there is a drastic policy and mindset shifts.

There has to be a paradigm shift into how we view the internet.

At the moment those in power together with their accomplices in the business elite still deem the internet as luxury meant for themselves and those closest to them.

This is not only regressive but archaic and counterproductive kind of thinking.

The internet is today an essential tool of life ÔÇô very much like water and electricity.

Yet essential as it is, many homes and small business premises even in suburban and urban areas remain without connections.

The situation is worse when it comes to rural areas where agriculture is by far the largest source of both income and employment.

Compared to such countries like Rwanda, Mauritius and South Africa that we often like to pit ourselves against as our economic peers in Africa, we remain what in telecommunications parlance is called a “fibre laggard.”

It is not enough for Bofinet to say that their mandate does not include connections into the homes and business premises as that is for ISPs (Internet Service Providers.)

As an important stakeholder and also wholly owned by the Government of Botswana Bofinet should be proactive in assisting both the Government and also the Regulator (Boccra) in assuring that Government ICT Policy in so far as it pertains to minimum threshold speed is full upheld, including and especially by ISPs, who in our opinion have been infiltrated by unscrupulous elements, that are robbing the less discerning consumer in more ways than one.

This by no means a way to proffer an apology on behalf of Boccra.

In fact we are deeply worried and disappointed by lack of oversight on the part of Bocra.

On account of lack of capacity, the Regulator is clearly unable to protect consumers against these ISPs. Clearly if there was such capacity many of the ISPs that are still in business today would have long been struck off on account of falling short of ethical standards when it comes to pricing vis-à-vis the broadband speed and size.

Like we say there are ISPs connecting clients to broadband speeds that are way below what could by any standards be permissible.

As it is there is a clear case to re-evaluate the business and investment model for rolling out fibre across the country.

The best model would be to parcel the country into fibre districts or zones and divide those zones between fibre companies ÔÇô including even fibre communities that are community oriented or community specific.

Once distributed across the country, investments in fibre by such companies would then become catalysts for new investments.

The current straight jacket model of one size fits all is totally inappropriate given that the country is so starkly divided when it comes to development, demographics and concentration in business activity.

There are parts of the country that development-wise still need to be taken by hand. And there those that are so far ahead.

The risk and temptation is to leave behind areas that are already under-developed and far behind.

Incentives could then be offered to companies willing to invest in the vast, sparsely neglected areas of the West that however still hold significant economic potential and prospects in agriculture, wildlife and tourism.

Ideally, Bofinet, because it is state owned should be designated to concentrate in those areas across the country that are commercially less attractive and less lucrative, while leaving the eastern parts to strictly private owned entities as they are too often capital constrained and profit oriented.

Government could also empower Bofinet to become a key investment vehicle in its area of expertise outside the country as there is still a lot of business potential across the sub-region for companies of its scope.

While still there, it is important as a country to also move towards thinking of creating an infrastructure fund. This is in light of already expressed enthusiasm by the current administration to use internet to boost and reignite the agriculture based economy.

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