In a deliberate move geared to transform the lives of an average 640,000 citizens living in remote 274 sub-locations, the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) has projected to utilize Ksh 2billion to enhance access, affordable and available ICT services.
The Authority, in its quest to narrow the yawning gap of ICTs in the country’s underserved regions targets to utilize the sector’s Universal Service Fund (USF) to steadily address the access gaps. Currently, 28.2 percent of Kenya’s population live in urban centers, while 71.8 percent in rural areas.
Having embraced the USF in 2010 and from an implementation perspective in 2018-2019, the industry regulator purposes to embark on the second USF phase guided by the outcomes and positive impact the initiative yielded albeit with it being largely riddled with insecurity concerns, particularly in the north-eastern parts of the country.
The mandate of ensuring the penetration of ICT services in remote areas which the licensed mobile telecommunications operators reckon as commercially unviable has according to Dr. Emma Otieno opened a window for collaboration in building a new ICT ecosystem. This is modeled around public-private partnerships (PPPs) in a quest to effectively manage complex interfaces and provide a framework for apportioning risk between the public and private sectors. In Kenya, the PPPs in ICT fall into two general categories; broadband, and e-government, both of which are primed to unleash a virtuous cycle of transforming multiple economic and social activities to benefit citizens regardless of their dwellings in the remote parts of the country.
“While liberalization of the country’s telecommunication market and promotion of competition has delivered telecommunications services to more people in the urban centers, more collaborative efforts are required to provide the country’s underserved population,” said Dr. Emma Otieno, USF Manager, CA.
Since the hallmark of the new ICT ecosystem focuses on deepening interconnectivity, it hinges on bringing in new forms of players and regulatory cooperation in the best interest of the citizen. “In this regard, the communications sector USF strictly supports ICT and broadband programs, which include access to end-user digital devices, including the building of ICT digital infrastructure that is available to all and at a cost that is within reach despite the location.
“ICT services in Kenya’s remote regions should be qualitative without geographical discrimination” averred Dr. Otieno asserting that USF is underpinned by principles of affordability, accessibility, and availability to treat all subscribers in a non-discriminatory manner as the country pools to drive the digital economy by investing in people, revenue, and technology.
Against this precept, the universal service lays emphasis on the demographic and geographical characteristics of the country. Effectively, therefore, the ICT ecosystem presents both opportunities and challenges for the regulator.
Maximizing the Benefits
Asked what is then required to uphold the USF, Dr. Otieno stated that the country has the law and regulations remains a work in progress. “It requires us to find a balance between maximizing the benefits of the new ICT ecosystem and securing optimal policy and regulatory objectives designed to address potential negative consequences in the changing ICT consumer landscape that has come with a share of digital risks,” she added.
In a quest to balance needs and optimize sector-specific regulation while creating an enabling environment that contributes to innovation and investment in the underserved areas, CA said Dr. Otieno has decided to collaborate with diverse sector players to drive the digital economy.
For the impact of ICT services to be felt across these remote countrysides, CA observes that prudence demands that ICT infrastructure needs in the underserved sub-locations should be mounted alongside other basic needs demanded by the local population. Such basic needs range from the provision of water, food, and electricity among others.
The Locals Buy-in
“While it is CA’s policy to judiciously oversight the building of the state of the art infrastructure in these ICT underserved areas, Dr. Otieno recommended the new players rolling out the ICT infrastructure in the far-flung remote areas should as well factor other immediate basic needs such as water and shelter to get a buy-in from the locals.”
In discharging this obligation, the Authority’s USF framework as provided in the Kenya Information and Communications Regulations 2010, purposes to promote communications infrastructure and the rollout of ICT services in the rural, remote, and under-served areas.
It also supports the development of capacity building in ICTs and technological innovation and the expansion of communication services to schools, health facilities, and other organizations serving public needs.
To uphold fairness, the industry policy requires carefully crafted rules to identify the underserved sub-locations, an undertaking that mandates CA to govern the funds, while the Universal Service Advisory Council (USAC), appointed by the Government oversights.
Section 84J (3) of the Kenya Information and Communications Act, (amended 2009), established a Universal Service Fund to be charged on all licensees of the Authority. Further, the Universal Service and Access Regulations of 2010 (KICR 2010), prescribed a Universal Service Levy not exceeding one percent of gross revenue to be charged on all licensees offering communications systems and services on a commercial basis. Communication services mean telecommunications, broadcasting, postal/courier, e-commerce, Internet/broadband services. The Authority currently charges a USF levy of 0.5 percent of the gross revenue of a licensee.
So far, the licensed telecommunication network service providers have been remitting their contributions annually. Both the Postal & Courier Licensees along with Licensed Broadcasters have according to Alfred Ambani, Assistant Director Multimedia Services started making their contributions to the sector universal fund this year.
”The Authority is also currently conducting a Baseline Survey (through a consultancy) for the Broadcasting, Postal & Courier Services in order to identify the level of service provision and access gaps in these sub-sectors in addition to identifying mechanisms for bridging the gaps. The input of the various stakeholders including broadcasters, signal distributors, postal and courier operators among others shall be taken on board during the study,” Ambani said.
Since USF is intended to serve as a financial incentive for operators to provide universal service, it is squarely being used to supplement market-based policies to address the ICT access gaps in remote and underserved areas.
Ability to Deliver
Delighted of how Safaricom PLC – the country’s largest telecommunications operator has actively supported the USF initiative in the country, the company’s CEO – Peter Ndegwa, CEO notes that the company aspires to use its products and services to transform lives and contribute to sustainable living throughout Kenya.
“Our vision sets out how we use our ability to deliver connectivity and innovative services to improve the quality of life and livelihoods of all Kenyans,” said Ndegwa adding that the organization’s vision is based upon the twin pillars of responsible, ethical business and transformational products and services.
Being one of the most profitable companies in the East and Central Africa region, it will be interesting to see how its active participation in upholding the country’s USF initiative transforms lives in Kenya’s remote sub-locations.
Since the Universal Service Obligations has embedded universal service obligations in its licenses, requiring operators to participate in the provision of universal services, the mobile network operators required to set up transmission sites in under-served and un-served sub-locations have so far towards this fulfillment constructed 429 mobile base transmission sites during last financial year.
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