Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has all feasible features over the other telecommunication systems which seek the attention of policy makers for its implementation in Ghana.
Services provided by VoIP
With Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) support for computer-to-telephone calls, telephone-to-computer calls and telephone-to-telephone calls. VoIP represents a significant step toward the integration of voice and data networks. Originally, regarded as a novelty, Internet telephony is attracting more and more users because it offers tremendous cost savings relative to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). Users can bypass long-distance carriers and their per-minute usage rates by running voice traffic over the Internet for an Internet-access fee. The expansion of Voice over Network (VoN) would serve to fill the gap in supply of International Direct Dialing (IDD).
VoIP telephony allows telephone calls to be made over the Internet. While VoN refers to a standard telephone call utilising VoIP and bypassing all or part of the public switch telephone network. Currently, the availability of affordable and reliable IDD is limited in Ghana. Charges for IDD using a PSTN can cost up to 75 cents per minute to West African countries and up to $1.50 per minute when calling North America. About 45 percent of IDD calls encounter a busy signal, requiring callers to redial several times before achieving a connection. The cost to place calls to countries within the region, using a VoN is 5 to 7 cents per minute and 10 to 15 cents per minute to North America, roughly 10 percent of the cost of IDD using PSTN.
Regulating VoIP in Ghana
One of the decisions facing tele-communication policy makers in Ghana is how to regulate VoIP. Government regulation therefore becomes the hurdle that must be overcome to increase the availability of this cost-saving technology. Currently, more than 30 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer VoIP for internal corporate telephony. These firms operate in a nebulous area of VoIP that is not clearly legal or illegal and risk confrontation with the National Communications Authority (NCA). These ISPs have the requisite technology and expertise to provide VoN on a larger scale.
Revenues for this service are estimated at between $8 and $10 million a year and are expected to grow at an annual rate of 5 percent. This clearly demonstrates the viability of this industry. Legalising internal corporate VoIP and VoN would reduce the risks for VoIP suppliers and help to promote the development of
Ghana's telecommunications infrastructure. However, legalising VoN could potentially erode the revenue base of Ghana Telecom (GT), the partially government-owned incumbent telecommunications service provider. Statistics shows that revenue from international calls dropped from $ 42 million in 1998 to $14.4 million in 2002.
Some industry experts believe the decrease in IDD revenue was due to the increased use of VoIP, email, international short messaging services (SMS), and instant messaging (IM). The National Communications Authority (NCA), established by Parliamentary Act in 1996 as a central regulatory body to create transparency in the regulation of the telecommunications sector and to promote a stable operating environment for all participants, while promoting fair competition and efficiency, has as a result commissioned a technical team to among other things investigate how some ISPs caused the loss of more than $30 million to Ghana Telecom.
The policy knots
There is very little possibility that the NCA can stop the proliferation of VoIP and other technologies – such as IM, SMS, and email – that decrease demand for IDD using PSTN. In addition, the Ghana Telecom (GT) network cannot meet the demand for IDD. The challenge for NCA will be to develop a policy that legalises VoN while providing a new revenue base for GT. If VoN is legalised, one source of revenue for GT will be the leasing of E1's to VoN providers. Leasing one E1 generates $2,000 in revenue a month. Annual revenue from the leasing of E1s after the legalization of VoN is projected to be between US $5 million and US $10 million. This gain in revenue would offset the future decrease of traditional IDD revenue based on the rate of decline from 1998 to 2002. GT can also utilise wholesale VoIP, which is explicitly legal in Ghana, to decrease its IDD rates and increase its competitiveness.
Ghana Internet Service Providers Association (GISPA) has also argued that losses at GT mean lower contributions to the Universal Access Fund. However if the Government were to legalise VOIP, it could tax the operators and get back this revenue and provide an opportunity for Ghana to be the telecom gateway in the sub-region.
Here is an outline of the official position of The National Communication Authority (NCA):
1. VoIP is allowed within the corporate VPN setting;
2. Licensed International Gateway operators are free to use whatever technology they choose to terminate/originate their international traffic in or out of the country (including VoIP technology), within the right interconnection agreements with other carriers;
3. ISPs, Internet Cafes are not allowed to terminate international voice traffic on the national PSTN or any other public telephone network, since their license is primarily for data and not voice communications;
4. The NCA however realizes the blurring of the line between data and voice traffic on IP networks, and as such is working on a licensing and regulatory framework to enable qualified operators (ISPs, Internet Cafes) to offer VoIP services to their clients while contributing to the development of the access network and telecom development in the country in general;
5. The New Telecom Policy (NTP) treats this issue under the section on 'International telecommunications';
6. It is hoped that by the end of this year (2005) all questions on VoIP operations in Ghana would have been settled with the offering of the licensing and regulatory framework discussed.
Expected trend ahead
Ghana has a particularly large VoIP grey market estimated at approximately $15-25 million a year in 2003. In other West African markets the grey market is estimated at somewhat between 10-20% of the overall market. 'Grey' markets in international VoIP calling have cropped up almost everywhere in Africa because of the large difference between the price charged to the African customer by monopoly incumbent telephone companies and the much cheaper cost at which they buy that call on the international market.
Grey market operators like ISPs and cyber-cafes can offer the calls more cheaply and still make a profit. What the benefits / advantages to the average Ghanaian? In a country like Ghana where a large number of people have relatives and friends living outside the country, the legalisation of VoIP technology will make it easier for relatives and friends across continents to stay in touch. Particularly if one considers the fact that the number of households with phones at home is approximately 76 phones per 1000 people. Tele density in 1999 was the same 76 phones per 1000 people.
Most people wanting to make calls to relatives outside the country have to queue up for the few working phone booths to make calls with expensive phone cards they purchase and that only give them a few minutes of talking time. With the advent of Internet Cafes, which can be found in most places in Ghana including villages, the next logical step is VoIP so that a cheap reliable means can be provided for people to talk to their relatives outside of the country.
VOIP will be legalised in Ghana when policy makers gather the political will to carry it out. GISPA is currently working with the NCA and Government to facilitate the development of a framework for legalising VOIP operations. NCA is hopeful that by the end of this year (2005) the licensing and regulatory framework for VOIP would have been sorted out and implemented.
A silent revolution
Glenanore, a tea estate at Haputale in SriLanka, alongside the factory and the living quarters of the plantation workers houses the Glenanore Knowledge Centre. Until last 6 years the poverty ridden estate area was even deprived of the electricity facility. But, now the centre is a hive of activity.
Every computer of Knowledge Centre was occupied. Young children were accessing to information, searching for websites in English and in their own language (Tamil) downloading the data information for the projects they were working.
It is to the enterprise of an individual like Vengadesh, the Glenanore centre was established in March 2005. Since than it has been hard work for him to promote usage of the Centre among the poor and ignorant estate community. 6 months of his hard work is positively paying off. Business started picking up slowly. The estate kids were charged only a nominal fee. Vengadesh is also encouraging enough not be strict with the timings, allowing them to work freely when the computers are not occupied. The Centre also provides different services, like government forms which, can be downloaded from the web.
Vengadesh now had a host of customers other than the estate community. In a sense the Centre has built a bridge between a once marginalised community with the rest of society. With the access to the ICTs, the estate community has received the power to change their destiny.
For the enthusiasm instilled by Vengadesh, it is hoped that it will take the community a long way in taking control of their own lives, changing the environment and building the future.