Digital inequality is increasing as an urban elite benefit from being online while most of the Basotho population does not access
By Angela Collings
In 2018 a study commissioned by the Lesotho Communication Authority (LCA) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) found that mobile phone penetration in Lesotho was at 78.65 percent, while internet penetration stood at only 30 percent, with 83 percent of rural dwellers not using the internet at all. In urban areas, half of the Basotho population does not access the internet.
To address this challenge, the LCA plans to implement a compliance monitoring and revenue assurance system. This technology-based solution will enable both mobile network operators and Lesotho’s regulatory authority to optimise revenues, which will foster greater inclusion and market growth.
Lesotho’s telecom sector plays a critical role in fostering improved communication services as well as being a significant economic contributor. However, as in many other African countries the boom in mobile telephony has challenged governments and regulatory agencies.
The dominance and contribution by mobile operators towards economic growth in the African countries in which they operate is substantial, thus making the telecom sector an important one that governments should nurture and grow. To do this effectively, regulatory oversight and compliance are critical.
The sector should be viewed in much the same way as the banking sector: encouraged to operate innovatively but within a well-defined and enforced framework of regulatory compliance.
Deloitte recently published its 2020 edition of RegTech Universe, noting that regtech (regulatory technology) promises to “disrupt the regulatory landscape”. While the analysis focuses on the role of regtech in monitoring transaction compliance globally, we should also consider its consequences for Africa’s telecoms sector. The report highlighted that the telecom sector is a significant contributor to the economies and national treasuries of governments in emerging markets, notably Africa.
GSMA’s 2019 Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa analysis reported a GDP contribution for 2018 of 8.6% from the telecom sector and forecast this to grow to 9.1 percent by 2023. Mobile operators saw their revenues grow from $35bn in 2013 to $45bn in 2019 (2017 and 2019 GSMA Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa reports).
While mobile operators have introduced infrastructure to enable higher-quality communications, one must question whether the profits generated by these international companies adequately benefit the countries, and ultimately the citizens, in which they operate.
In an age of rapidly advancing technologies, another question arises about whether governments are sufficiently armed with best-practice regulatory monitoring systems to enforce compliance within the telecom sector. In many instances governments rely on a self-declaratory system to oversee the sector.
This means it has limited oversight and is at the mercy of mobile operators, hoping that they will provide accurate, fair and complete declarations regarding the revenues and profits generated.
Therefore, governments and regulators should look to technology-based solutions that have the ability to introduce fairness, accuracy and completeness into the mobile operator ecosystem. In addition to employing expert auditors from the likes of Deloitte, KPMG and EY, governments need independent telecom sector experts that have the capabilities to monitor the business and technology practices of mobile operators objectively.
In the case of Lesotho its telecoms market is highly concentrated, with Vodacom Lesotho dominating with about 80 percent of the mobile market and Econet Liquid dominating various segments of the fixed market. The study commissioned by the LCA and ITU shows that current prices, even relatively well-benchmarked data prices, are unaffordable for many Basotho.
The result is that digital inequality is increasing as an urban elite benefit from being online. At the same time, most of the population is left offline, or only able to be online intermittently and for short periods due to the relatively high cost of communications for them.
Added to this, and because the sector is a duopoly, competition is insufficient to promote effective price reductions for consumers. Therefore, mobile penetration remains below the regional average, and the small size of the market provides little incentive for new players to enter the market.
The LCA is taking an important step towards having the capability to access accurate information on market dynamics that leads to better governance. The key to good governance is without doubt transparency — that is what revenue assurance and oversight systems bring. Ultimately this better positions the LCA to ensure market growth and greater inclusion, which means increased revenue for the government and the private sector. NW
• Collings is a strategic communications specialist who has local and international companies as well as civil society organisations as clients.