Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Access costs and local content – emerging issues

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Traveling around Ghana has made Charles Amega-Selorm realize that Internet access is no longer an issue – but access costs and local content certainly are!

If you had asked me a few months back what my position on the Internet in Ghana was, I would have said that we needed full Internet availability in every part of Ghana but now my position has changed. I would now say that what we need to do is to bring down Internet access costs and develop more local content.

In my recent travels around the country, I have been very impressed with the coverage of the various mobile networks. Mobile Telephone Networks (MTN) has the widest network covering almost every city, town and suburban area I visited. Vodafone has a wide network too, followed by tiGO and Airtel and expresso. There were areas in which one network or the other had poor quality or didn’t function but you would always find at least one network working quite well. This brings to mind recent efforts by the authorities to implement mobile number portability (MNP). MNP enables mobile telephone users to retain their mobile telephone numbers when changing from one mobile network operator to another. Implementation of mobile number portability makes a lot of sense in this case.

All (except expresso which recently rolled out an EVDO service called Cliq using CDMA technology) have rolled out 3G services and so by purchasing the 3G modems you can have at least a GPRS service wherever their signals are. This means availability of Internet service wherever you go and can find a GSM signal in Ghana. I have tried Airtel, MTN and Vodafone and I must say MTN is widely covered and works much better than all the rest. Vodafone is surprisingly very good too, despite all the lousy fixed broadband services. Can you imagine – my broadband at home goes off for almost a week and I can’t even get any love from Vodafone customers relationship representatives. You call their 101 helpline and for a whole day nobody picks up. Occasionally, you would see one Internet Service Provider in a remote area where you wouldn’t have expected them but that only goes to show just how far Internet has advanced in Ghana.

I can also confirm that I visited about six Community Information Centers (CIC) from Daboase in the Western Region, Abura Dunkwa in the Central Region, Nkawie in the Ashanti Region, to Bechem and Duayaw Nkwanta in the Brong Ahafo Region and Dodowa in the Greater Accra Region. All these towns have electricity and a CIC. Apart from some of these CICs which provide Internet, there was no ICT Centre in any of these towns, but in each of them I did have Internet access because the mobile networks had all these towns covered.

Internet is available almost everywhere you go in Ghana but can everyone afford it? My answer is NO! MTN, Cliq and Zain sell their modems for GHC 60; and Vodafones and tiGOs go for GHC 55. The reality when you buy these modems is that you pay for the initial bandwidth you consume. All networks charge 20 pesewas per 1MB of Internet bandwidth. But if you buy GHC 60 of MTN bandwidth, you get 2.5GB of bandwidth. Also, if you buy GHC 60 of Zain credit, you go home with 4GB of bandwidth and if you buy GHC 55 of tiGO or Vodafone credit, you get 3GB of bandwidth. GHC 60 gives the user 4.5GB of bandwidth experience.

Much as mobile Internet proliferates in Accra and Kumasi and in most tertiary institutions, my investigations show that people find these prices ridiculously prohibitive. They just don’t find it funny buying credits to browse when they can indeed talk with the same. Some said they would rather go to the cyber cafes which are not available in places like Daboase, Abura Dunkwa, Nkwanta and Bechem. The CICs with Internet charge between 60 and 80 pesewas per hour. Folks found these very expensive but the incentive for their use is that their kids are able to check their BECE and WASCE results and SHS postings without having to travel several kilometers.

I am paying GHC 45 ($30) for 10GB of bandwidth for a speed of 128kbp on a very unreliable Vodafone broadband. The initial setup cost is now GHC 55. Much as this is an improvement on what used to be, I still think it is expensive compared to what exists elsewhere, even in other parts of Africa. Not everyone can afford this. This clearly shows that something must be done about the cost of Internet access in Ghana. I think competition is gradually bringing down costs but we need more action to cause a complete revolution in the pricing regimes.

Also one question I kept hearing is “what do we use the Internet for?” and it is a very valid question indeed. Most people who visited the CICs accessed Facebook, and students checked their results and searched for their Senior High School postings and National Service postings. In the absence of these services, of what use is the Internet? In my opinion, Facebook has been highly instrumental in getting people to start using the Internet, be it on mobile phones or PCs, but Facebook alone cannot sustain people on the Internet. We need relevant local content to get people to continue using the Internet on a daily basis.

Congratulations to the mobile networks, they deserve full credit but they need to bring down the costs of their Internet service and we need to develop relevant content – local or international. The National Communications Authority has worked hard to liberalize the communications sector but more needs to be done in terms of an enabling environment for the take-up of revolutionary pricing regimes and local content development.

*CICs are ICT Centers equipped with PCs and Internet. Located in every district, they serve as electronic libraries where people from remotely located areas can look up information about topics such as farming, education and healthcare.

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