Draft ICT Policy: Insufficient in outlook, deficient in prescriptions
On February 1, 2012 · In Technology,
By Maxwell Onoja

A MERE glance at the draft ICT policy recently published by the Ministry of Communications Technology would reveal several gaps and inconsistencies. These flaws cast serious doubts about its potency and efficacy to sustain the gains already recorded in the sector, let alone providing the launch pad for the future progress of the industry.

The major drawback in the document is the constitution of the committee and the scope of its assignment. Harmonized or draft new policy? There is some disconnect between the role of the committee set up by the Honourable Minister of Communications Technology, Mrs. Omobola Johnson, which produced the published draft policy document.

The terms of reference issued to the Committee headed by Professor Raymond Akwule, and made up of members drawn from government institutions, was to harmonize all the policies in the different sectors of the ICT industry. The Committee’s draft appeared to have gone beyond the terms of reference as it contained far reaching recommendations which undoubtedly, were very limited in scope, content and direction.

IT Minister, MOBALAJI-JOHNSON

Broad based committee

A draft policy for the ICT sector is expected to be produced by a broad-based committee comprising representatives of the various sectors of the industry, including the private sector which is currently driving the sector.

At best, the Professor Akwule Committee’s is expected to produce a draft document for a sector-wide industry workshop, leading to setting up of a broad-based ICT Policy Review Committee to articulate and fine tune the positions reached by the industry, after exhaustive discussions. This will ultimately produce a draft policy for final inputs and adoption. This has been the industry practice.

The ICT industry is too huge and sensitive to be guided by a policy drafted exclusively by civil servants who may pander to the wishes of their superiors while stakeholders like the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria , ATCON, Nigerian Computer Society, NCS, Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria, ISPON, Nigerian Internet Group, NIG, Internet Service Providers Association of Nigeria , ISPAN, Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria , ALTON among other institutions and professionals, are left out.

Mono-objective policy direction: The introductory part of the draft policy document dwelt so much on convergence of ICT regulations. This undue focus misled the drafters of the policy into assuming that the emergence of a converged regulatory ICT sector is the only solution to national ICT development. Hence, they dissipated energy addressing a single issue- converged ICT Sector.

The implications of this misguided focus as reflected in all the recommendations, was that the policy document ignored the role to be played by the private sector under the new framework. It also ignored key issues like attraction of investments in the sector, advancement of human capital development, local content or localization of ICT products and services, leveraging the employment opportunities in the sector.

Broadband penetration

It also left to chance, some other crucial issues that affect the industry such as right of way in the ICT sector, Internet and broadband penetration, ICT curriculum in educational institutions, interference with existing ICT regulations from other government agencies outside ICT sector, Cybercrime among others.

While some of these topical issues were mentioned in the objectives of the policy, there were no clear roadmaps for achieving them in the document. A policy of this nature must have clear directions with short, medium and long term objectives stating timelines, timeframes, signposts and roadmaps.

This draft has none. There is also no linkage between the prescriptions in this document and the relevant policies that predate the draft policy document upon which it derived its recommendations. These policies like the National Telecommunications Policy 2000, National Mass Communications Policy, and National Information Technology Policy 2000, received mentions only as it affects convergence of regulations.

Notwithstanding how trite or outdated these policies are, there must be a nexus between these extant policies and the draft policy to suggest items that are being updated or being discarded. Policies are derived from existing ones except where none exists. The ICT industry has ample policy antecedents to serve as basis for further prescriptions.

Flawed recommendations: Perhaps, the flaws in some of the recommendations on the draft document may be explained from the membership of the committee. This is why the content reveals a misplaced assumption by the Committee that existing legislations like the National Broadcasting Commission Act 1992, Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1990, Nigerian Communications Act,2003, NITDA Act 2007, are mere documents that could be glossed over with policy review.

In doing this, the committee’s recommendations appear to have completely ignored the extant status of these laws upon which the industry has thrived. In other words, policies have life spans while laws exist and can only be amended or scrapped. Therefore, these laws supersede policies but could help in developing and advancing the course of policies based on practical experiences gathered in the course of implementation of the laws. Policies should be seen as directional guidelines with life spans.

Volume of mobile phone handsets

Policies should also focus on tangibles. For instance, it is desirable that given the volume of mobile phone handsets sold in Nigeria per annum, appropriate policy framework need to be put in place to achieve local manufacture or assembly of these handsets with the associated benefits.

Such developments will not only contribute to the fulfillment of the local content objectives in the industry but will also create employment opportunities. There are no such tangibles in the draft policy document. Suffice to say that only a broad-based policy articulation can bring about tangibles in the sector.

Nedless invitation of government controls: There are key areas of the recommendations of the draft policy that conveyed an outright invitation to government to come back to a sector whose success is credited and attributed to its liberalization and deregulation. The recommendations that Nigerian Communications Satellite, NIGCOMSAT, and Galaxy Backbone, be retained as government owned companies erode the very principles of liberalization and deregulation in the sector.

It also negates the earlier position of a more inclusive Presidential Committee headed by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, which recommended the transfer of ownership of these companies from government to the private sector.

Under this arrangement, government is required to concentrate on providing a level playing field through its regulatory institutions rather than becoming a player and a referee at the same time. The experience with NITEL provides ample justification for this position.

The recommendations in this draft policy document appear retrogressive in this direction.
Deliberate erosion of regulatory independence: Another flawed recommendation is the prescription of the management structure for the proposed converged regulator, including positions to be allocated to each component of the regulatory institution. This recommendation ignores the avowed independence of the regulator and the current outcry against increasing the cost of governance.

In converged regulatory environments as practiced by the Office of Communications, OFCOM in the UK , Federal Communications Commission, FCC, in USA , among others, there are no policy prescriptions about the positions to be occupied within the regulatory institutions. The available staff are made to fit into structures already designed for regulatory efficiency.

It is a dangerous precedent for a policy to deviate from giving directions to prescribing the structures for the proposed converged regulator. It is also noteworthy that the roles of the converged regulator are already specified in the different acts of parliament establishing these regulators in Nigeria . It is therefore trite to begin to prescribe the same roles or new set of roles through a policy draft.

The erosion of the independence of the converged regulator is also conveyed in the recommendations  of an independent Universal Service Provision Fund, USPF. The current structure as contained in the Nigerian Communications Act 2003, positions the fund under the purview of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, which also provides fund for its activities as provided by the act.

The policy draft did not substantiate or justify the argument in support of creating an independent USPF, ostensibly, under the ministry. Apart from negating the provisions of the relevant laws, and the objectives set out for the fund, this recommendation is an indirect invitation to ministerial control of an independent converged regulator.

How would this policy guarantee effective performance of the fund under the political headship of the ministry as against the controls of a converged independent regulator which also provides the funds and human resources necessary for effective performance of the USPF?

Several other recommendations of the committee are riddled with consequent invitation to government’s control into a sector that is already fully liberalized in line with global trends. In effect, the current recommendations seek to reverse the achievements recorded in the sector since 20 years ago when the government of General Ibrahim Babangida’s military regime began the process of liberalization of the industry with the promulgation of Decree 72 of 1992.

Surely, the present democratic government of President Goodluck Jonathan would not preside over the decimation of the achievements already made in the sector, especially in the last ten years through a retrogressive policy direction.

Conclusion: While these are some of the key areas that need to give concern to close watchers of the sector, there are still several grey areas in the recommendations that have put a lot of question marks on the new draft.

However, it needs to be restated that the major flaw of this exercise is that it lacks  industry participation and consultation. The draft has a long ‘wish list’ without commensurate ideas on how to achieve them. It is not late to invite the industry stakeholders to decide an effective policy direction.

Onoja is an ICT consultant and analyst

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