Since the early 1990s Africa's telecommunication landscape has been transformed beyond recognition, with many countries on the continent opening up this sector. As a result of the liberalization and deregulation of the telecommunication sector more lines have been added, spurring the development of value-added services. Even though the current telecommunications reforms have not emphasized accelerated infrastructure development, there are clear signs of greater availability of services within countries. Mobile telephony and the Internet are spreading beyond capital cities - a good indication of the scope of the telecommunication buildout on the continent. These efforts should be consolidated with further steps in the liberalization of the telecommunication sector, including strengthening institutional and regulatory mechanisms to attract more investment. However, the reality is that Africa still suffers from a lack of adequate telecommunication infrastructure to bolster the continent's entry into the information age. It is increasingly becoming evident that ICT applications can provide enormous opportunities for education, health care, income generation and other goals in social advancement. Consequently, there is a strong need to expand the communication infrastructure and networks to help meet development goals, especially as Regional Economic Communities move towards economic integration.
Integration and Communication Recent innovations in telecommunications and transport have condensed time and space, quickening the pace of globalization in recent years. This is increasingly causing disintegration of economic and political nationalism and acceleration of regional integration or regionalism world-wide. Here in Africa, recent commitments by African Heads of State to create the African Union, and its launching in Lusaka, represent an historic opportunity for the acceleration of integration, which can be considered to be a critical aspect of the African Renaissance. However, any form of integration requires communications and networks, as its bedrock, to harness and build greater interconnection on the continent. Improved national information management systems facilitate many regional objectives and constitute starting blocks for integration: o Intra-institutional communication between regional co-operation institutions and their constituencies: the linking of national or regional organizations that work on similar objectives allows them to consult, share information and collaborate on joint projects. o Promotion of trade, financial co-operation, agricultural development, food security, environment protection, foreign direct investment and improvement in the industrial and manufacturing sectors: ICTs have become essential components of the whole chain of trade promotion, facilitation and regional co-operation. Tools such as the Internet promote global markets and give voices to small and medium enterprises and farmers alike, and enable them to market and deliver goods and services irrespective of their location. o Facilitation of trans-border data flows brings down barriers to personal communications, thereby removing the constraints of national boundaries, physical disabilities, distance and time zones. Access to expanded telecommunication networks also reduces the costs of international communication among countries and fosters cross-border information and data exchange. These examples represent the minimum expected for efforts to use ICTs for economic integration. Another stark reality is the need for African leaders to address the tremendous challenges confronting the continent as they devise strategies for integration, which include: o Developing an Africa Regional Information Infrastructure (ARII) that could integrate national telecommunication systems, facilitating greater interconnectivity between countries as well as the interoperability of networks. Such efforts would help resolve local imbalances and inefficiencies through the development of common networks and regional backbones, improve universal access and narrow the digital divide in the 'least connected' countries. Capacity building and human resource development programs should back this effort. o Mutual recognition or acceptance of equipment-type approval procedures would facilitate intra-regional trade in telecommunication equipment. By making efforts to aggregate regional telecommunications requirements, and by co-ordinating countries' negotiations for networks, applications and funding mechanisms, overall costs could be reduced, enabling greater access to services. o Developing a regional technical and policy framework, with regulatory capacity to co-ordinate and harmonize ICT policies and programmes to enhance the region's competitiveness in the global economy. o Promoting co-operation and freer trade in services to include telecommunications and other forms of ICTs. This would facilitate intra-African trade and investment in telecommunications and promote the development of indigenous African telecommunications and IT content. Needless to say, there are some initiatives already under way on the continent aimed at enhancing a regional approach to Africa's telecommunication buildout. Plans are already under way in West Africa to harmonize and co-ordinate existing ICT policies aimed at enhancing that region's market. In the southern African area, e-readiness assessments of member states have been conducted which will hopefully lead to regional strategies. Conclusions The ICT-focus group of the Africa Development Forum 3 (ADF), held recently in Addis, also recognized that ICTs could have a substantial impact on regional co-operation and integration if the right policies, programmes and mechanisms are in place. This group recommended that regional co-operation and integration efforts should mainstream information society and digital inclusion issues in their plans and programmes. Consequently, some areas of particular importance were identified: Policy and Regulatory Integration The creation of regional strategies would enable Africa to build economy of scale for developing its infrastructure and content and increase Africa's ability to negotiate globally. Regulatory integration at the regional level would create and strengthen the community/associations of regulators to facilitate cross-boarder interaction, market enlargement and harmonization policies at the sub-regional and regional levels. This would also call for the simultaneous strengthening of regional institutions, to participate effectively in global ICT, as well as of decision-making bodies such as ICANN, WTO, WIPO, ISOC etc. Special attention should also be paid to Intellectual Property Rights and strengthening the ability African countries to address these issues. A regional community of practice on ICT governance and negotiation should be established. Infrastructure Development ECA's Member States should give priority to the development of their information and communication infrastructure. This will include the setting up of sub-regional backbones, exchange and interconnection points, with human resource development requirements. There also is also a need to examine the potential of alternative technologies (such as wireless, satellite-based and other low-cost transmission technologies) as part of the process for facilitating universal access. Mechanisms for sharing bandwidth within the sub-regions should be looked into as part of the facilitation of sub-regional and regional interconnectivity. Capacity Strengthening The capacity of Regional Economic Communities and the universities in knowledge management and in ICT for development issues has to be built to create a critical mass of experts that promote and facilitate regional co-operation and integration. In addition, an observatory for ICT and regional integration should be established to research, monitor, scan, pool, evaluate and disseminate progress, trends, success stories and knowledge to stakeholders. The Diaspora could play a significant role in pooling and disseminating information on global ICT governance that has relevance to Africa. Furthermore, regional policy research on ICT and regional integration should be undertaken to guide policy formulation as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of co-operation. Apart from the above-mentioned, the ICT Focus Group recognized the need for governments to address fiscal and monetary policy issues, by establishing common tariffs for ICT products and services across borders as a key component of the harmonization process at sub-regional and regional levels. They also stressed the need for cost sharing in executing joint projects at sub-regional and regional levels, particularly the financing and strengthening of sub regional and regional backbones to enhance connectivity in the region. In this regard, the role of the private sector in the development of national and sub-regional initiatives should be encouraged. Conclusion This, in a nutshell, is what it takes to build an ICT infrastructure for the continent. If countries can commit to some of the above, the impact of telecommunication buildout will have a profound and positive effect on integration. It is in this vein that the ECA-led AISI initiative is being implemented, particularly through the collaborative efforts of partners who share a common vision of promoting connectivity and the use of information and communication technology for Africa's development. A tremendous amount has been achieved in the past decade on a national scale; however this has to be backed simultaneously by initiatives at the sub-regional level to ensure that greater strides are made. ECA will work with its partners to enable its members states maximize and optimize the current telecommunication buildout.