Ghana’s telecommunication and ICT industry has been one of the sectors that have witnessed progressive growth and development over the years. The sector has contributed significantly to national development through job creation, improved business transactions and direct contribution to national income.
The main factors that have contributed to the success of the telecom and ICT sector have included inclusive policy making, fair competition, non-repressive environment, and enforcement of best industry practices in relation to operator obligations and respect for user rights.
However, recent policy decisions and practices being adopted and imposed on the sector by the industry regulator, the National Communications Authority (NCA), have been quite imprudent. In fact, recent actions by the regulator have the potential of not just crippling the industry, but also rolling back the gains made in the sector so far.
Of significant concern is the ongoing cloudy, non-consultative and unilateral decision by the NCA and the MOC to introduce a monopolistic Interconnect Clearing House (ICH), which is supposed to serve as the gateway for all telecommunications and online communications in the country.
So far, many industry players, civil society groups and individuals have raised legitimate concerns about the usefulness of the proposed ICH and the processes leading to the selection of an entity for the operation of the ICH. At best, the tendering process was murky and public consultation was literally absent. The haste, with which the selection of an entity for the operation of the ICH took place, cannot but deepen doubts about the legitimacy of claims backing the need for the ICH.
Privacy rights violations and other concerns
The supposed all-purpose nature of the proposed ICH and the fact that it is meant to be a monopolistic entity licensed by the government through NCA raise very alarming concerns. Given its proposed functions, ICH can be used for gross privacy violations through massive surveillance.
Given the recent stories of massive surveillance by governments elsewhere and the serious implications of such practices on privacy rights, Ghanaians and various groups should be concerned about the ongoing manoeuvrings by the NCA.
Beyond the concern over the potential to use the proposed ICH for surveillance and other broad online rights violations, there are many other pertinent questions about the proposed ICH that are begging for answers from the NCA.
The NCA itself has touted the seamless interconnection among network operators in Ghana as a major contributor to the growth of the telecom industry in Ghana. Clearly, this can only be attributed to the fact that, as required by law, the telecom operators in the country have invested in their interconnection facility. So if there are no problems with interconnection, why spend national resources to duplicate what already exists and works well?
A major concern from the beginning has been an obvious possibility of additional costs to subscribers. But in order to deal with that big issue, the NCA claims there will be no such additional costs because network operators will not suffer any additional charges for the ICH. If this obviously doubtful claim is assumed to be true, the question is who will then be bearing the costs for the operations of the ICH? Is it public money that will be used to fund the operations of the ICH? And if so, why should people’s taxes be used to pay for something that solves no problem?
If indeed the facility to be established is for the good of citizens and the country for that matter, why was the process not subjected to thorough public discussion and solicitation of input from all stakeholders? Why was the process rushed through with practically no publicity?
Under the current peer-to-peer interconnection, system breakdowns may only affect calls from one network to another. However, the proposed nature and mandate of the ICH will mean that it will be the single gateway for all communications in the country. The danger is the possibility of a nationwide breakdown in communication when the ICH encounters technical problems, suffers digital attack, or in the event of a disaster.
The centralised monopolistic communication gateway, as has been proposed, could also be used or manipulated for political persecution and gains.
Sim Box Fallacy
In fact, it is incomprehensible that the NCA is ignoring all these risks and proceeding with the process of having the ICH in place. In fact, in the attempt to win public support for the needless ICH, the NCA has put out what can be described as the fallacy of ‘ICH and SIM Boxing Fraud (SBF).’ Quite clearly, the solution to SBF cannot be the proposed ICH. The solution lies with dealing with the conditions that make sim-boxing an extra-ordinarily lucrative venture in Ghana.
Based on the foregoing issues and many other cogent reasons that have been eloquently highlighted by many other organisations, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) calls on the general public, civil society and various groups to fiercely resist the ongoing attempt to introduce the proposed industry-crippling entity.
If allowed in the manner it is proposed to be set up, this ICH will draw back the successes gained in the telecoms sector; provide an opportunistic channel for any group or government to conduct mass surveillance, arbitrarily abuse privacy and other online rights of citizens; and potentially increase the cost of telecommunication services in Ghana.