THE Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA) last Friday held a symposium to commemorate World Telecommunication and Information Society Day. The seminar took place at Maseru Sun Cabanas. The event, celebrated annually on 17 May to mark the establishment of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), also marked 150 years of the ITU’s existence this year under the theme: “Telecommunications and ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies): Drivers of Innovation.”
In this wide-ranging interview, LCA Chief Executive Officer, Monehela Posholi speaks with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, about the event and other issues relating to the LCA.
LT: May 17 is obviously an important day on the LCA calendar, as evidenced by the many stakeholders who attended the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day at Maseru Sun Cabanas last Friday. Could you please explain further the significance of this day and how it came about?
Posholi: Let us start by setting the record straight. We, as the LCA, organised the event for Lesotho at large, so it was not our celebration as such, but rather the country’s. However, there had to be someone to organize it, which was where the LCA came in. The importance of the day is to highlight the significance of Information and Communication Technologies and the effect they have on the socio-economic development of our countries. ICTs have been recognised as drivers of economic growth throughout the world and their impact is really cross-cutting in most areas of our economic activity. And the importance of this year’s event, in addition to marking World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, was also to commemorate the 150th birthday of ITU, which was established in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union. But it was later changed into International Telecommunication Union in 1934 in order to embrace a broader mandate of telecommunication and the evolution of technology. However, since we are aware that even the mandate has since widened from telecommunication to other ICT-related functions, such as internet broadband et-cetera, it has nonetheless, been agreed that the name of the organisation will remain International Telecommunication Union. The celebrations are held every year on the 17th of May, but like I said, this year they marked yet another important milestone because of the 150th birthday.
LT: What are the objectives and mandate of the International Telecommunication Union?
Posholi: The International Telecommunication Union is a worldwide body which is really a United Nations’ specialised agency for communication and ICTs in general. It is the one charged by the UN to spearhead developments and coordinate world activities on ICTs, and even bring them to the attention of world leaders. So one can simply say the ITU drives the globalisation of ICTs. ICT issues require coordination because if you are talking, for instance, about telephone services, you need to be able, when you call overseas from Lesotho, you need to be able to make that conversation uninterrupted and without any interference from anyone, anywhere. So that requires coordination. Importantly also, the ITU has to make sure the entire world is evolving in order to benefit from advantages of having well-developed ICT infrastructure in our countries. This now leads me to explain that the International Telecommunication Union has three bureaus it works with. It has the Standardization Bureau, which is meant to ensure that technologies and devices that we use interoperate with each other. Then there is the Radio communication Bureau which ensures that radio frequencies, which are the waves that we use for communication purposes, are coordinated such that if you have a frequency that you are operating on as a country, it would not be used by anyone else so that we do not have any damaging interference. The Radio communication Bureau operates through radio conferences which are held regularly and coordinated worldwide by the ITU. For instance, in November this year, there is going to be a five-week World Radio Conference in Geneva to coordinate and discuss and reach resolutions on Radiocommunication so that frequencies, which are a scarce resource and finite in nature, can be allocated to countries efficiently in order for those nations to carryout and offer their communication services. Now we have, as the last, a Development Bureau which was established in order to assist developing countries, such as Lesotho, through capacity development programmes that assist in terms of bringing those nations up to speed with advances in ICT.
LT: How has Lesotho specifically benefitted from being an ITU member?
Posholi: Lesotho recently benefitted from the ITU in the development of a broadband policy, which is at draft stage at the moment. Also the International Telecommunication Union, working with the European Union (EU), assisted us recently in developing cyber security draft bills that are very important in security for communication services, and these now need to be considered and enacted into law. As a country, we have also benefitted in terms of capacity building, the LCA in particular, in the regulatory function because you may recall that this regulatory function, or regime, is a new phenomenon in Lesotho. The LCA, for instance, was established in 2000 and prior to that, the regulatory function was performed by the LTC (Lesotho Telecommunications Company) which was privatised and eventually became Econet Telecom Lesotho. So the regulatory function had to be moved to a separate, independent entity. It was the LTA (Lesotho Telecommunications Authority) at the time, now it’s the LCA, and there had to be some capacity building which had to happen very quickly for this entity to perform its function effectively, and bring the necessary competition into the market and handle all these sensitive issues related to communications. We continue to be a member of the ITU as a country, and Lesotho is usually represented in the union by the LCA. However, where it becomes necessary depending on the agenda, the ministry (of communications) represents the country. The bottom line is Lesotho is a member of the ITU, and not the LCA.
LT: Having talked about a broadband policy and cyber security bills, what are their major advantages?
Posholi: To put it into perspective, we have three main functions here — a policy function performed by the ministry because government is the policymaker; a regulatory function which is performed by LCA, and service provision, which is provided by service-providers. We are talking here of the broadband policy which is being driven by the ministry, as the policymaker. But of course, the LCA takes part due to its importance to the communications sector as a whole. We participated actively in the development of the policy. It is now ready for processing and to be finalised into adoption by government. The ministry would be responsible for carrying out those final processes in terms of finalising it. It is a very important piece of document. You may be aware that the internet is the future of the sector. So many services are now being offered on the internet. So much information is available on the internet. To really unlock the potential that the ICT holds, we need to develop the internet very quickly. The focus now is on broadband, which could be termed an advanced level of internet in terms of speed and availability. The policy seeks to develop this in the country. This is where the world is going. It is only when a policy has been adopted that other strategies to implement that policy would be developed. We are awaiting adoption of that policy quite eagerly so that we can now move into the development of related and associated strategies. But despite the delays, this sector has not stopped in terms of developing broadband. You may be aware that the mobile sector, in terms of mobile devices, has made serious inroads into the development of broadband in that third-generation networks (3G) have been developed in Lesotho by operators so that whenever you have access to mobile services, you are also able to access 3G so that you can connect into the internet and browse through your smartphone, laptop or whatever mobile device you are using. And you may be aware that one of the operators has started offering Long Term Evolution (LTE) (4G) services which offer broadband.
LT: How far has Lesotho gone in changing from analogue to digital broadcasting?
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Posholi: The actual deadline for terrestrial digital migration from analogue is 17 June 2015 – which is next month. It’s important to understand that this affects terrestrial. Most of us here are currently enjoying satellite television, which we receive through satellite dishes at our homes or workplaces. But the digital migration we are talking about relates to terrestrial, which does not come from satellite. What this process seeks to do is to improve television quality on terrestrial, not satellite so that perhaps we can even have more or less the same services that you would otherwise get in terms of quality on satellite. Most importantly, this is going to free-up some spectrum. Remember we talked about radio frequency or spectrum being a scarce resource and finite; we need to save what we have as much as possible because we have more and more people coming in with mobile services and all mobile services are using radio frequency and spectrum and we need more of that scarce resource. So digital migration is going to free-up some frequency bands that were being used by television and make them available to mobile wireless services. More details on this are further going to be discussed at the World Radio Conference I have already said will be held in November this year. I should then highlight that the whole digital migration process was initiated by the ITU in 2006 for Region One, which covers Africa, Europe, Middle East and Islamic Republic of Iran. The expectation for this region is that come 17 June 2015, the whole region should have moved to digital terrestrial television. The implications of that, as far as the LCA is concerned, is that being charged with the responsibility of managing radio frequency spectrum, if after 17 June it is found that there is a television station that is still broadcasting on analogue platform and has not migrated and is found to be interfering with another television station that has moved to digital platform, that analogue television station will no longer enjoy any protection. It will have to be closed down. If, for argument’s sake, TV Lesotho, or any other television broadcasting from here, would not have migrated to digital after 17 June, and appears to be interfering with another television station in South Africa which has migrated, we would have no protection whatsoever to give to the Lesotho station. And, in consultation with our counterparts in South Africa, then we would have to close down that station. That’s how we come in as the LCA as far as issues of radio frequency management is concerned. In terms of reassuring you as to where we would be come 17 June, the ministry has established a unit – Digital Migration Unit – which is driving the process. They will be in a better position to answer whether or not we will have migrated come 17 June.
LT: What are general challenges you face as LCA?
Posholi: First of all one can say that the Authority since its establishment in 2000 I think it has made very good progress in developing the communication sector in the country, in terms of liberalizing the sector, in terms of bringing competition and making sure that the modern services of communications are also offered in Lesotho. Well, there are some challenges but we came up with some interventions to try to address them. One of the challenges that we were facing for a very long time was ensuring that we have a countrywide coverage. We realised that the operators, we have two operators being Econet Telecom Lesotho and Vodacom Lesotho, their interest was to develop communications infrastructure in areas where there are large numbers of population, densely populated, being urban and peri-urban areas, where they know that they will be enough traffic to be generated from those areas for them to generate sufficient revenues and get a good return on their investment. But there were other areas throughout the country which were not enjoying the same level of population density and which were of no interest to the operators and we had to find a way to address them. We then came up with an initiative around 2009, when we established what is called Universal Service Fund (USF) now, which was meant to address those areas. To-date we have developed a countrywide, over 25 sites through provision of subsidy to the operators to develop mobile services infrastructure. This addresses very remote areas of this country. We are now sitting around 85 percent coverage of the country despite the difficult terrain of Lesotho. In two years’ time we would be able to have a 100 percent coverage. The fact that we have witnessed a very good growth in the take-up of mobile services throughout the country that almost everyone, at least in Maseru, has a mobile phone, we are sitting now at a teledensity of 124 percent as at end of March 2015. The moment you go beyond 100 percent shows that there people who have even more than one mobile phones, which is a reality. And it is worth noting that we have started around one percent teledensity, so this is quite an achievement. The other challenge we have ahead of us is how we drive uptake of internet services and broadband. That is the biggest challenge that face, and we have to come up with a number of initiatives to ensure that we promote broadband in the country. To conclude, we are pleased that the government also gave LCA its space to function as an independent regulator. That is something that we shouldn’t take lightly.