Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE African Telecommunication Union’s third regional meeting convened in Accra, Ghana, last week. Representatives from across the continent are preparing for the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT), which takes place in Dubai in December.

The stakes at these meetings are very high for Africa and for its economic development. The future of the internet as we know it is hanging in the balance.

The internet has been a powerful force for generating economic growth in Africa and opening up access to information. At the heart of this growth has been a relatively light-touch regulatory environment, with decisions about internet governance made in a collaborative, multistakeholder environment with emphasis on problem-solving rather than political considerations. The resulting business model has made it possible for users even in poorer or more remote countries to have access to attractive internet content for the cost of connectivity.

Consider recent internet growth in SA and Ghana. In SA, the International Telecommunication Union reported that internet usage increased by more than 25% last year, and the number of users is expected to hit 10-million by the end of this year. Between 2010 and last year, internet penetration in Ghana nearly doubled, increasing from 5.2% to 10%. Much of the latest growth is occurring over mobile platforms.

My organisation recently finished an analysis of some of the proposals by European and African parties being advanced in the run-up to the Dubai meeting. Some of these proposals would have the effect of changing the economics of internet service provision and would be particularly harmful to Africans and those living in other developing countries.

The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO), representing European telecommunication companies, is proposing that the "sending party network pays" principle be written into an international treaty. This proposal would force content providers to pay local telecom operators for the delivery of user-requested data. Users from countries not seen as having large revenue potential could even find themselves cut off from some content. Alternatively, attractive content may have to be moved behind paywalls, making them inaccessible for those without credit cards. The result would be a "balkanisation" of the internet and a new digital divide.

For example, the present economics of the internet allow students with access to the internet living in SA to access innovative short educational videos on thousands of subjects on Khan Academy, a nonprofit service established by a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur living in the US. The only cost is connectivity. If the European proposal is not defeated, the networks hosting Khan Academy content would have to enter into agreements to make substantial payments to hundreds of networks all over the world. The transaction costs would be onerous.

These payments are not likely to be borne by the networks hosting content and would be passed on to the content providers, such as Khan Academy. Most content suppliers will be forced to change their business models away from the present mode that allows wide free access to anyone at the end of an internet connection. In some cases, users in entire networks and countries would be excluded.

The Africa region proposal would also harm Africa’s future. The proposal would expand the current treaty to encompass the larger ecosystem of the digital economy. This would reverse the process of liberalisation that has enabled the internet to grow and flourish throughout Africa.

The proposal from the Africa region, led by SA, would significantly raise the cost of network interconnection, content delivery and quality of service. This proposal would undo the dynamic market that has been responsible for the explosive growth of the internet in Africa.

African policy makers should recognise how the internet has been an important source for education, digital commerce and entrepreneurship in Africa. The current governance model of the internet is not broken; indeed, this structure has unlocked the transformative power of the internet as a platform for social and material progress. Africa’s delegates must stand together to reaffirm the essential character of the internet and its potential to lift Africa higher.

Samarajiva is founding chairman and CEO of LIRNEasia, former director-general of telecommunications of Sri Lanka and a board member of Research ICT Africa.