By Othusitse Tlhobogang
In a mission to bridge the existing digital divide in the country, Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA) is coming up with a strategic plan for the Universal Access and Service Fund (UASF) to address the matter. BOCRA this week held a consultative workshop to get all stakeholders on board and get their inputs to better deal with the issue.
BOCRA Chief Executive Officer Thari Pheko said if successful, the strategy will help Botswana to diversify from a commodity driven economy to a knowledge-based economy. According to him, the UASF is a step in the right direction to make sure funds are available towards stimulating knowledge in the country. He said this can be achieved only if the communication gap reduced.
The aim of UASF, he said, is to ensure that all Batswana have access to a set of basic yet essential communication services throughout the country at affordable costs. Pheko said the focus will mainly be on assisting population groups and areas which are currently beyond the market reach.
For a long time in Botswana there has been a great gap between cities and rural areas in terms of connectivity to communication tools such as the internet. Some places do not have any connection at all while some continue to enjoy the services. He, therefore, said the time has come to close this gap. “We are aiming to finalise the UASF strategic plan by July this year and start its implementation,” said Pheko.
According to the strategic plan, UASF which will be run by an independent entity from BOCRA will be responsible for financing the set programmes over the period of three years. BOCRA’s director for Broadband and Universal Service, Martin Mokgware, indicated that the fund will be financed through 1% of the levy of revenues from designated communication service providers. He added that some of the money will come from BOCRA surplus funds.
Sonja Oestmann – the consultant engaged by BOCRA to develop the strategic plan – said for the first three years the focus will be the computerisation of primary schools and providing broadband connectivity to all schools located in communities with less than 10 000 inhabitants.
Other activities include the provision of voice services to around 60 000 un-served inhabitants living in the most remote locations of the country as well as increasing Radio FM broadcasting coverage and availability of commercial radio stations to almost 90% of the population. It is believed that with these programmes the digital communication gap will be bridged.
Oestmann told the meeting that most of the work has already been done and Botswana is better placed to have a successful universal access and service. She said UASF is essential as it provides a transparent and fair means of funding. “This will help to make the services much cheaper to set up to the currently unreached markets as well as being affordable for them to use,” she said.
Most of the stakeholders who attended the workshop welcomed BOCRA’s initiative. Even though some feel the cost of this is too high they however pledged their support for the initiative. Some particularly from television industry and postal services questioned their exclusion from benefiting from UASF, arguing that they just like others need to be part of it.
The consultant had explained that research has shown that television has little penetration of about 50% and hence it was decided that UASF will only intervene after its reaches 75%.
BOCRA CEO said further consultations will be made with every concerned party. He assured all the stakeholders that nobody will be left out of the formulation of the strategic plan. “This is not the responsibility of the government and BOCRA alone but all players involved in communications,” he said.