African UN initiative urges universal telecom fund

As access to the Internet remains limited in many rural areas in Africa, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), through its African Information Society Initiative (AISI), is looking at ways to expand online usage, especially in remote areas of the continent.

UNECA, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, formulated the AISI action plan to help build up Africa’s information and communications infrastructure. The ultimate goal is to create widespread Internet access by 2010, to support the type of so-called “information society” already a reality in other parts of the world, where populations have ready access to computer-based resources.

In trying to balance rural and urban access to the Internet, UNECA is suggesting the Universal Access Fund approach, where the telecommunications operators and Internet service providers (ISPs) contribute money in a common fund that is then utilized to provide basic telephone and Internet access in rural areas, according to Baharul Islam, a UNECA consultant with its Development Information Service Division.

“In Rwanda the telecom operators and Internet Service Providers are contributing money to a common fund — (a) Universal Access Fund — that is then utilized to provide basic telephone or Internet access in rural areas. This concept has worked well in Rwanda because many rural areas are connected and are able to communicate either by phone or Internet,” Islam said.

Other countries in Africa, Islam says, can also employ the Universal Access Fund concept to help achieve a balance between urban and rural access to the Internet.

In Zambia the telecom operators and ISPs have said the Universal Access Fund idea is a good idea because it will attract investments in rural areas, because most investors are afraid to invest in areas where there are no communications, according to the Communications Authority of Zambia.

The Communications Authority, responsible for registering and licensing communications companies in Zambia, has said the Universal Access Fund concept is the only way to connect rural communities. The Communications Authority has been exploring some ways in which telephone operators and ISPs can work together and take their services to rural areas, according to Susan Mulikita, director of licensing and consumer affairs.

Telephone operators and ISPs, Mulikita says, have always been agreeable to the concept of contributing some money to projects that aim at taking telecommunications to rural areas in the country.

“We have been working on a mechanism with telephone operators and ISPs on how we can source and implement the disbursement of funds for the telecommunications development in the country, especially in rural area where people are completely cut off from the rest of the world in terms of communications,” Mulikita said.

Mulikita said that there are already some funds in its rural telecommunications development project, but that they are not enough to construct telephone and Internet facilities.

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