Article wrong on telecoms policy discourse

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BY DR BITANGE NDEMO

Following an article that appeared in a section of the media recently, on the on-going price wars by phone companies, I am compelled to respond because the reckless misrepresentation of facts not only ignores the ethics of responsible journalism but also endangers the society’s wellbeing.

Myth: In the article three issues were raised:

One: that the Ministry of Information is pushing the industry regulator the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) to give out land next to its headquarters for lease. This statement is erroneous.

Fact: When Bharti officials came to the country they put in a request for the Government to assist in identifying a parcel of land on which they would put up a structure to house all the Africa operations on a lease basis.

Worldwide, this is normal practice and I fail to understand why the article, instead of looking at it as a way of government attracting foreign investors, goes ahead to narrow it down to a political favour. Bharti, which intends to invest Sh24 billion in the next 18 months in this country, has operations in our neighbouring countries and if our government fails to get them land they may opt to build the headquarters elsewhere.

What would this mean? Kenya would lose the opportunities that come with investing the Sh24 billion locally, such as employment opportunities for our youth, for example in the 250 Call Centres they intend to put up and that will employ 1,000 people.

Land problems will remain for as long as speculators, who have made prices prohibitive, are in operation, increasing the cost of doing business and stifling investors’ ability to secure land.

Second: The Treasury is the custodian of all government property and thus the claims made in the article to the effect that the Ministry of Information is pushing CCK to give away the land are baseless.

Third: The article also alleges that the Government favoured Telkom Kenya Ltd by allowing it to manage the National Fibre-optic Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI) terrestrial network. This is yet another misrepresentation that exposes the fundamental ignorance with regard to the background and operations of the NOFBI project.

When the project was started, it was managed by Telkom Kenya, then fully-owned by the Government. As part of the project the construction of ducts (this is where the fibre terminates) was jointly done between Telkom Kenya and other government agencies in the country.

When Telkom Kenya Ltd was later privatised the NOFBI was not part of the deal, thus requiring the Government to identify or form a company that would manage the project on its behalf.

There were several hurdles; first the Government did not have the human capacity to manage the venture. Considering the fact that Telkom Kenya previously managed the project and the Government still has some control, it was felt that forming another company would be duplication of efforts if it could still use the human capacity at Telkom Kenya Ltd.

If the Government was to use another party other than Telkom Kenya it would have meant that the company would construct new ducts all over the country. Where would this money have come from? Does it not beat logic for a government that has advocated the sharing of the IT infrastructure among the players to start duplicating the same infrastructure?

The Government’s position on this matter and I am on record severally having said that we intend to run the infrastructure on an open access model where all private operators will have access is that we cannot give away this national highway as it will mean going back to the monopoly era.

All the telecommunication operators in the country have access to the NOFBI and Telkom Kenya (who get a commission for managing the infrastructure on behalf of the Government) and pay for it.

Last but not least, relations between the Ministry and CCK are very cordial. While the Ministry has the duty of policy formulation, CCK on the other hand has a duty to ensure that policies are implemented. At no time has my Ministry interfered with the regulator’s duty to implement any policy that we have come up with and the blame should lie squarely on them if they are not implementing the policies.

(Dr Bitange Ndemo is the PS, Ministry of Information and Communications)

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