The decade-long effort to coordinate telecommunications regulation and pricing across West Africa remains difficult but regional governments have not given up, said officials gathering recently in Freetown for the 10th annual general meeting of the West African Telecommunication Regulatory Assembly (WATRA).
The goal of harmonizing telecom regulations was first agreed on at a meeting in Burkina Faso in 2001. In addition to coming up with a more uniform regulatory system, officials in the region are also working to boost investor confidence, according to Watra Executive Secretary Nnamdi Nwokike.
"We have harmonized ICT laws, which we expect all countries in the region to domesticate into their national laws," Nwokike noted during the conference last week. "But it is very difficult to harmonize tariffs because of the sovereignty of all nations. However, we have not given up on it though I can't give you a timeline of when it would be achieved."
Nwokike also said that the region needs to reduce tariffs because that is the only way it will grow. He urged regulators to strive for lower rates, and disclosed that WATRA will update its tariff survey this year to provide current rates charged in various countries. The last edition was published in 2008.
Low telecom penetration and high tariffs still exist in the region, but so do opportunities, Nwokike said. "We've done well with voice but haven't done well at all in data services. To improve on Internet services, we need more investment on Internet infrastructures," Nwokike added.
On its part, Sierra Leone will experience growth in the telecom sector in few years, noted the country's National Telecommunication Commission NATCOM chairman, Siray Timbo.
"Roughly, the teledensity in Sierra Leone presently is around 28 percent to 30 percent and Internet penetration was at 0.3 percent three years ago and now at 0.8 percent. Our projection is that teledensity will rise to 50 percent by 2014 and Internet penetration to 10 percent," Timbo said.
Much of the growth will be due to the ACE fiber-optic cable, which will connect West Africa to Europe and will soon become operation. Because of the cable, prices are expected to decline for end users. Also, the Universal Access Fund, set to be fully functional by January 2013, should help existing telecom operators to venture into unserved and underserved locations, Timbo said.
According to Timbo, every telecom operator in Sierra Leone has been contributing 1 percent of their turnover to the fund.
He added that NATCOM is also working with the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union and the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation to embark on a pilot project calling for the formation of five multipurpose community telecenters that would provide telecom services in rural areas.
Timbo described the WATRA's annual meeting as a platform to review each country's performance in the past year and to treat common challenges facing them. WATRA membership includes all countries in West Africa except Togo -- 15 countries in all.