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Universal service fund looks to bridge digital learning gap

Catherine Ngahu
Catherine Ngahu, the outgoing USAC chairperson. PHOTO | COURTESY 

The closure of schools and colleges countrywide due to Covid-19 and the emerging importance of digital learning have underscored the urgent need to develop ICT connectivity infrastructure in Kenya’s unserved and underserved areas.

The Universal Service Fund (USF) was set up in 2009 to facilitate ICT connectivity in such areas, began collecting levies from telecoms operators in 2013.

The fund, managed by the Universal Service Advisory Council (USAC) under the tutelage of the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) , has seen the CA roll out ICT projects in areas that previously could not access these services

But it has also faced its fair share of challenges trying to implement projects — from low funding, insecurity to inaccessibilty of some areas

The operators are required to contribute 0.5 percent of their annual turnover to the fund with the regulator topping 25 percent revenue surplus.

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Catherine Ngahu, whose term as USAC board chairperson came to an end last Friday, spoke to the Business Daily about the council’s achievements and the challenges they have faced in the implementation of USF projects.

THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE USF PROJECTS TOOK SOME TIME. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE REASONS FOR THE DELAYS?

The implementation of projects took longer than expected as we had to formulate strategies and operating manuals to provide clear guidelines on the management of the fund.

These two documents were key in identifying projects to be financed by the fund. Moreover, they had to be scrutinised by members of the public as well as stakeholders as per the constitution. This is why it took some time.

To identify prevailing ICT access gaps in a scientific manner, the authority also had to carry out a study. The study, which was undertaken in 2016, resulted in the identification of un-served and under-served areas as well as in the design of the subsidy model for bridging the gaps.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE KEY ACHIEVEMENTS DURING YOUR TENURE AS USAC CHAIR?

Some of my successes include negotiating with licensees to contribute to the fund, which saw operators first billings in 2014, overseeing ICT Access Gaps Study in 2016 that resulted in the identification of unserved and underserved areas of the country and development of an interactive Geo-portal used in the identification of underserved areas and populations

Others are development of a five-year USF Implementation Strategy and Governance Framework which guide the implementation of the USF projects; review of the Universal Service and Access Regulations, scaling-up of the E-Resource centeres project within the Kenya National Library Service (KNLS) outlets that resulted in the computerisation of all the 62 libraries in Kenya; and connection to broadband and support to 8 ICT centres for people with disabilities.

We also have the partnership with the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) on digitisation of the secondary school curriculum, expansion of voice infrastructure and services in 67 out of the targeted 78 sub-locations, and provision of education broadband connectivity to 885 or 94 percent of the targeted public secondary schools. The design of phase 2 of the voice infrastructure and services projects will upon implementation see deployment of mobile voice services in additional 123 sub-locations spread across 19 counties in Kenya.

HOW MUCH HAS THE FUND COLLECTED OVER THE YEARS AND HOW MUCH HAS BEEN UTILISED IN EXTENDING REACH TO UNDERSERVED AREAS?

The USF levy collection and interest accrued as at March 31 (quarter 3 of the financial year 2019/20) stood at Sh10.6 billion.So far, Sh837 million has been utilised on the Phase I Education Broadband Projects and Sh1.25 billion on Phase I Voice Infrastructure Project.

ON AVERAGE HOW MUCH DO OPERATORS CONTRIBUTE O AN ANNUAL BASIS?

They contribute an average of Sh1. 4 billion.

SOME CRITICS HAVE QUESTIONED THE ABSORPTION RATE OF THE MONEY CONTRIBUTED BY OPERATORS SINCE THE INCEPTION OF USF, SAYING IT IS VERY LITTLE AND THAT THE MONEY LIES IDLE IN YOUR ACCOUNTS.

As at March 2020, the USF had accumulated Sh10.579 billion which has been allocated to five targeted projects with an expenditure of approximately Sh12.35 billion. The management of the projects is subject to all the existing government financial and procurement laws and guidelines. The view that the money is lying idle is therefore not correct.

WHAT WERE THE TARGETS SET FOR THE FIRST PHASE OF USF AND DID YOU ACHIEVE THEM?

Under the first phase of USF, our target was to connect 1,000 public secondary schools with the Internet and 202 sub-locations in remote areas with voice services. The Ministry of Education Science and Technology provided a list of 896 public secondary schools, out of which the authority has connected 885.

The 202 sub-locations targeted for voice infrastructure were floated for tendering. Only Safaricom and Telkom Kenya participated in the tender, with the former taking up 50 sub-locations and the later 28. The 78 sub-locations are in Garissa, Wajir, Mandera, Marsabit, Turkana, West Pokot, Baringo, Samburu, Isiolo, Kwale, Kilifi, Kitui, Bungoma, Narok and Kajiado counties.

To date, the two contracted operators have provided communication services in 67 or 86 percent of the targeted 78 sub-locations. The 11 outstanding sub locations, mainly in Mandera, Garissa, Marsabit, Turkana and West Pokot, are at different stages of completion having faced delays due to insecurity challenges and approvals.

WHAT PROJECTS HAVE BEEN PLANNED FOR PHASE TWO AND HOW MUCH WILL BE NEEDED?

Phase Two will cost Sh12.35 billion in cellular mobile network infrastructure, education connectivity project, automation of the occurrence book as well as crime management system of the National Police Service. Others are establishment of Kenya Education Cloud Open Resource Portal, a baseline survey of broadcasting, postal and courier services, E-Health, Judiciary automation and Access Gap Geoportal System.

LACK OF ACCESS TO THE INTERNET AND COMPUTERS IN MANY PARTS OF THE COUNTRY HAS FRUSTRATED EFFORTS TO ROLL OUT ONLINE LEARNING. WHAT PLANS DOES CA HAVE TO BRIDGE THIS DIGITAL DIVIDE?

This challenge was envisaged at the on set from the access gap study under the USF framework. The 2016 study recommended the establishment of an Open Education Resource portal to host education digital content under the Education Broadband project and the KICD.

Progress is being made in this regard, with the USF having already connected 885 public secondary schools. Phase II of the project is targeting additional schools, including non-e-ready ones for infrastructural facilities support.

It is expected that the roll-out of such initiatives will ensure the delivery of the government’s overall digital learning plan.

NOW THAT YOU HAVE RETIRED, WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY IF YOU WERE GIVEN ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY TO CHAIR THE USAC BOARD?

I would reinforce public communication and sensitisation strategy to counter the misconception associated with USF projects, amend the governance structure to empower USAC in project decision making and engage government to ensure that the appointment of USAC members is undertaken in a timely manner to enable seamless succession.

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