Telecom operators and internet service providers (ISPs) in the country want the industry's universal access fund to be depoliticized to ensure efficient application of the funds.
The telecoms/ICT universal access fund is called Ghana Investment Fund for Electronic Communication (GIFEC) and its legal mandate is to extend telecoms/ICT infrastructure and broadband connectivity to unserved and under-served communities.
The Board of GIFEC comprises of representatives of all telcos, a representative of the Ghana ISPs Association (GISPA) and is chaired by the Minister of Communications by law.
Again, by law, the Chief Executive Officer of GIFEC is a political appointee. Since the inception of GIFEC, it has been run by politicians.
The first CEO was a former NDC MP, Kofi Attoh, who was succeeded by Kobby Acheampong, another politician and former Propaganda Secretary of NDC.
The Telcos, who contribute 100 percent of the money that goes to GIFEC, believe the mandate of the fund is not being fulfilled effectively because of political involvement in GIFEC.
The telcos argue that the current structure where the GIFEC board meetings are chaired by the Minister for Communications creates governance issues as the policy maker is also the policy implementer.
According to them, best practice recommendations from the International Telecoms Union (ITU) are that the fund should be under the control of an independent telecommunications regulatory authority, rather than the ministry or a special agency.
"Ideally, the fund administrator should have management autonomy to ensure that funds are used for the underserved areas but this has not been the case as the Ministers have tended to politicise investments made by GIFEC for campaigns such as laptops distribution, among other things, which are not sustainable," a source of the Telcos said..
"As a fund set up to address the gap between commercially viable areas of the country and rural/unserved parts of the country, GIFEC needs more autonomy in order for the funds to be channelled toward the needed infrastructure," the source adds.
The industry players are therefore hoping that the new government will rid GIFEC of the politicisation and allow an independent telecoms regulatory authority to run it and be held accountable for the way the funds are applied.
The ISPs also noted that there is great potential for development in GIFEC than is currently being pursued, saying that although GIFEC has contributed to an increase in rural telephony in the country, broadband penetration is still lagging.
They claim this is so because the minister always calls the shots at GIFEC, and even though by law every project undertaken by GIFEC is supposed to be approved by the board comprising of all the telcos, ultimately the. Minister's will always get done.
"Even though the application of funds are done with the approval of the board, it is what the minister says that usually holds and gets done," the representative of one ISP stated categorically.
They, therefore, believe GIFEC should be depoliticised and refocused to provide last mile infrastructure so that ISPs can bridge the digital divide with affordable broadband connectivity rather than just rural telephone.
By law, GIFEC is entitled to some state funds approved by Parliament, donations or any other legal sources. But since its inception, their only source of funding has been and still is the one per cent of the annual profits of telcos.
The telcos have always been concerned that GIFEC is not applying the funds properly to fulfil its legal mandate because of the political heads, the minister and CEO, usually have a political agenda in applying the funds.
They, for instance, observed that GIFEC has no legal mandate to support the Ministry of Communications annually "but it has become a regular practice that every year we have to approve of funds as support for the ministry."
The recent past GIFEC CEO, Kobby Acheampong actually said they were proud of allocating funds to support the ministry every year, even though it is outside of their mandate.
Meanwhile, GIFEC has erected some telecoms masts in parts of the country but not all the telcos have mounted their antennae on those masts because the telcos believe the locations of those masts are more political than strategic.
So far GIFEC on its own has mounted 51 telecom masts, supplied computer labs to all 38 colleges of education, all 28 technical schools, all 37 vocational schools, 24 community development schools, and over 60 integrated community employable skills institutions. All the beneficiary institution also got two years free internet connectivity.
GIFEC has also distributed over 27,000 laptops to about 700 junior high schools mainly in the deprived areas and supplied over 250 fishermen with fish finders that assist them to locate where mature fish are to make fishing easier.
They also train people for various government institutions in the use of ICT tools.
Just last year, GIFEC launched a GHC37million VSAT Satellite Hub to connect 2,000 rural communities with satellite communication service that delivers a terrestrial-grade experience with voice, video and data. 100 communities were connected last year and more are expected to be connected this year.
But the telcos argue that those projects are not sustainable, saying that the sustainability of GIFEC’s projects can only be guaranteed when there is an incentive for private sector to go into the unserved markets via tax rebates, tax holidays etc.
The telcos believe this would encourage operators to be proactive and bring out their planned rural roll out programs to access the fund. This is important because Operators are in the business of building infrastructure.