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Ghana’s government and telecommunication companies are on a mission to improve access to the Internet. Patchy coverage and high costs are holding back digital participation.
— Internet service in Ghana is among the best in Africa
— Ghana's government is working to expand Internet access and digital skills
— Rural communities still lack access to the Internet
— High costs are holding back digital participation
Ghana leading in terms of access
Ghana was one of the first African countries to liberalize its telecommunications market. In 1992 the first mobile network went into operation and within two years, the country was connected to the World Wide Web. Today, the numbers on Internet access speak to the country’s rapid transformation. Ghana has close to 19 million unique mobile subscribers – equivalent to 67 percent of the population, well above the average of 44 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Access to the Internet via mobile has increased from 2 percent in 2005 to 45 percent of the population today.
International mobile phone providers and Internet companies such as Google are getting involved in the expansion of digital infrastructure through their own projects such as CSquared. CSquared aims to bring high-speed Internet to Africa. The project has seen more than 840 km of fiber optic cable laid in the Ghanaian cities of Accra, Tema, and Kumasi. International aid organizations, such as the Danish DANIDA, are also contributing funds to the Internet expansion effort.
Policy makers pushing for digitalization
For years now, policy makers have been pushing for economic progress through digitalization. Successive governments have initiated a number of projects aimed at connecting more people to the Internet. In 2004, Ghana finalized and legally adopted its ICT Policy for Accelerated Development (ICT4AD), which outlined its vision for the information age. However – and this is the flip side of the coin – digital improvements are predominantly benefiting high earners in urban areas or companies based along the fiber optic infrastructure. Even in the capital, Accra, coverage is still fragmented, and, especially for start-ups, far too expensive, as William Will Senyo, co-founder and CEO of ImpactHub Accra explains: "There is high speed Internet, but it costs an arm and a leg. It costs you $15 to $100,000 dollars a year to have somewhere between 50 and 100 mbps stable high-speed fiber Internet. So how many companies can afford that? Very few."
Even for people with a regular income, access to the Internet – and with it the opportunities for digital participation – is associated with high costs. That’s despite Ghana’s leadership among its neighbors. The price for 1GB of mobile data volume is just over 2 percent of an average monthly income. In an international comparison by the Alliance for Affordable Internet(A4AI), Ghana ranks 20th out of 60 countries surveyed. The A4AI Affordability Drivers Index summarizes several factors relevant to access.
Regina Honu, CEO of Soronko Academy, which runs the Tech Needs Girls mentorship program where they teach primarily women and girls to code and work with technology, also remarks that digital participation in Ghana remains difficult because "the cost is prohibitive." She hopes that "government initiatives that use the internet to train more people in different places and get more organizations to come in" will drive down the cost.
For its part, the government is aware of the problem of cost. Ghana was the second nation to endorse the "1 for 2" Internet affordability target. In 2017, Communications Minister Ursula Owusu-Ekuful announced Ghana’s intention to start working toward "1 for 2," meaning, 1GB of mobile broadband for 2 percent or less of an average monthly income.
Inadequate infrastructure in rural areas remains a key issue
When it comes to access, the biggest problem in Ghana is the inadequate infrastructure in rural areas. In order to boost coverage, the government is primarily reliant on the Ghana Investment Fund for Electronic Communications (GIFEC), set up to address the gap between commercially viable areas of the country and underserved, rural parts. Kwaku Ofosu-Adarkwa, national coordinator for A4AI-Ghana, welcomes the government’s efforts. "I will say that as far as we are concerned, GIFEC has a strong strategy and so we see them as collaborators to impact on the way they work."
GIFEC is funded by contributions from licensed telecommunications operators. The money supports connectivity and training programs in rural regions. Community Information Centers, for example, are designed to give people in villages access to the Internet. The target is to reach a mobile phone coverage rate of 95 percent by 2019. Wireless Ghana is heading in the same direction. The non-profit project builds and maintains wireless infrastructure for rural communities. The network currently has over 20 nodes and extends out over a 10 to 15 km range, offering connectivity to Koforidua Technical University, secondary schools, churches, non-profit organizations, businesses and community activity centers across six towns in the mountainous region.
What experts say:
William Will Senyo, Co-Founder & CEO, Impact Hub Accra
Senyo criticizes the fact that the large infrastructure projects are driven first and foremost by economic interests: “Companies like Google are coming into Africa not with an aid mentality; rather they are purely commercial. The fiber bandwidth backbone from Accra to Kumasi is purely commercial and is sold on wholesale to ISPs – they don’t care if it is for poor people or not. They just need their money. And they want to be able to connect people so more people can get online.”
Regina Honu, CEO Soronko Academy
A major barrier to digital participation is gender: "Women should be given equal access just as men when it comes to digital. We must assure that all women, wherever they are, also have the opportunity to access data or go online."
Victor Asante, GIFEC Snr. Manager, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation
GIFEC doesn’t want to limit its projects to the promotion of infrastructure, explains Asante. “The other aspect that we look at is the limitations people have in participating in the digital space. We realize that people often do not really have the ICT skills. If you don’t have the ICT skills, how do you participate in the digital economy? You can’t! So we provide training in basic ICT skills and now we are advancing that training to coding.”
Kwaku Ofosu-Adarkwa, National Coordinator A4AI-Ghana
A4AI are keen to emphasis the user perspective within the access debate . “On that score, we concentrate on the consumer. What is it that you expect to receive from this quantity of data that you bought? Are you satisfied with the services you get?“
— Increase access
Although the government has a broad digital strategy, the lack of access in rural areas remains the most pressing issue. Since Internet use in Ghana is predominantly via mobile, broadband wireless access is the area that requires the most attention, both at a domestic and a commercial level. In a recent study (UNICEF 2017), UNICEF said that young people in particular often have no opportunity to use the Internet. However, companies and startups also need a reliable and fast fixed connection.
— Foster media literacy; support girls and women
Alongside better access, experts stress the need to increase media literacy, since access is only the first step for digital participation. In order to be able to confidently and independently use the Internet, it’s vital to know the opportunities and risks. "Young people need guidance," says the UNICEF study. A recent study by the Media Foundation for West Africa highlighted the acute need to support girls and women. There is a gender gap in Ghana in the use of mobile money services, with an even higher gap in Internet usage, with 2.5 million fewer women online than men. Mobile operators are working to tackle this through programs such as the GSMA Connected Women Commitment Initiative, while governments can take steps to address this issue by integrating gender equality targets and key performance indicators into strategies, policies, plans and budgets, involving women and local communities.
— Work towards an affordable Internet
Access must also be affordable. Although the government is pursuing the "2-for-1" goal, there is also the threat of additional taxation which will make Internet access even more expensive – thereby restricting the possibilities for digital participation. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) wants to see free public Internet access alongside guidelines to encourage and incentivize infrastructure sharing.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer