By: Dr. Anthony Adade
As someone who has spent many years in the technology industry, two things became clear to me during the presidential elections in 2016. One is how technologically savvy Ghana has become as a nation. The other is how unprepared the government (i.e. NEC) was in keeping up with data analytics, especially when it comes to the pace of dynamic electronic data analysis and reporting. The NPP war room totally outperformed the government’s NEC in data analytics during the 2016 elections. What if the entire election was conducted electronically (not recommended), and data was required to be moved over the internet through the various social media. Can we guarantee adequate bandwidth capacity and speed to handle the live feed? There are no easy answers but a few thoughts come to mind.
Number one on my list is a recommendation to provide the latest information technology apparatus, in the form of high speed broadband technology to ensure expedient data movement to where needed for proper analysis and reporting to the public. Over the past several decades, technology has made possible various communication tools that is supposed to improve our lives, but that is not always the case. We have gone beyond personal computers and data center storage to hand-held devices with incredible computer power, “cloud” computing and social media networks capable of storing and moving enormous amounts of data at mind-bugling speed. Data analytics has become part and parcel of our day to day business and social lives. And globalization of the world’s economic infrastructure has complicated this emerging technology phenomenon. So it should not come as a surprise that technology has been so deeply infused in our political discourse. We have the knowledge and expertise to participate in the new technology revolution, yet like many other countries, including some in the west, we find ourselves not fully prepared for its implications. Modern Ghana has become truly empowered, through technology to participate in a large scale national and international business; in education both online and onsite, entertainment, health care, and in a vibrant community and civic life.
Technology has indeed become pervasive in our lives. Most people today rely on electronic devices for daily survival. It is an understatement to say that most people in Ghana today have access to cell phones and as a result, a high volume of business transactions today occur over mobile phones. Several years ago, on my way to Kumasi from Accra, I had a conversation with the driver and he was blaming a declining transport business on what he calls “too much access to phones. People don’t travel anymore,” he complained. He had a point. A few decades ago, before the era of cell phones, I used to travel from Kumasi to Accra just to check if my passport application has been approved. Thanks to the advent of mobile phones, today you can call and if your document is not ready, you do not travel. Many technology-dependent services exist between businesses, various communities, government and non-governmental entities, all with the goal of improving people’s lives. So would it not be great if we had a strategically planned technology infrastructure to support everything technology? And perhaps even manufacture our own mobile phones.
Yes, Ghana must manufacture or at least assemble mobile phones locally because the market exists, not to mention the potential employment windfall created as a result, in the cell phone technology services delivery and support industry. Almost everyone has access to a cell phone today, including educators and students, the taxi driver and “paa opaa” worker, farmers and lawyers, among many other groups. And people can call to see if a bank is opened before they make a trip there. There are certain offices where you can also submit documents online, possibly saving you a trip to that business. Many institutions “including the government” in Ghana today rely completely on technology services delivered through the internet such as email and other social media (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Youtube, etc.). If any of these services go off-line, the productivity of those affected is negatively impacted. How do we prepare to ensure prevention of catastrophic failures while also boosting our readiness for an ecological system of high technology industrial village grids, most likely made up of innovative business communities, tertiary institutions, accessible and quality health care system, the fastest internet connectivity available, and a dynamic working class?
The answer is simple. Ghana must take a big picture approach to technology infrastructure planning and implementation. It should not invest in internet technology that is on its way out, and risk becoming a dumping ground for technology that is already out of service everywhere else in the world. Ghana must move away from prevailing sporadic internetworking technology infrastructure model, including cell towers and invest in a comprehensive, fault tolerant, high speed information technology services delivery grid. This is an approach that many countries, including some in the west, are now having to go back to. It is similar to urban planning. Just as the streets in well-planned cities and towns are easier to navigate than the ones that grew and expanded out of necessity, so is an internet super-highway supportive of efficient communications. This is not a task for government alone and the idea is not new. The African Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine communications consortium has a cable system along the west coast of Africa between France and South Africa. On June 5, 2010 a consortium of 20 operators and administrators, led by Orange (and includes Benin ACE GIE, Cable Consortium of Liberia Inc., Canalink Africa, Cote d’Ivoire Telecom, Dolphin Telecom, MEO, Gambia Submarine Cable Company Ltd., Guineenne de la Large Bande SA, International Mauritania Telecom, MTN, Orange SA, Orange Cameroun SA, Orange Mali, Orange Niger SA, République de Guinée Equatoriale, République du Cameroun, Sierra Leone Cable Ltd, Sonatel, SPIN and STP Cabo) all signed a consortium agreement to manage the cable project. And in December of 2012, the 17,000 km-long fiber optic cable went live, after an official inauguration ceremony on December 19, 2012 in Banjul, The Gambia. The project is similar to construction of the first trans-Atlantic cable by the Anglo America Telegraph Company in the 19th century, a major milestone in telegraph and later telephone communications. We are indeed in a new era. The era of fiber optic technology. According to a press release on the website of Orange (www.orange.com) , “…nearly 12,000km of fiber optic cable are already used to connect 18 countries – France, Portugal, the Canary Islands (Spain), Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and São Tomé & Príncipe. Two landlocked countries, Mali and Niger, are connected via a terrestrial extension.” Ghana can take advantage of the ACE project and extend high speed fiber optic cables to the interior of the country. Individual investors and businesses can also take advantage of the fiber backbone constructed by the ACE consortium, and begin work on last mile projects of similar output capacities. Case in point. Dr. Thomas Mensah, a US based Ghanaian scientist, who holds 7 US patents, including one in fiber optics manufacturing, has been working on a project to upgrade broadband Internet using the ACE Submarine Cable. According to Dr. Mensah, he is also working on “telemedicine platforms that will let doctors in Africa collaborate in surgery with doctors in America in real time.” What can government do? First government must join forces with the various internet broadband service providers and conduct a comprehensive assessment of current technology infrastructure to determine where we are. Second, define service(s) requirements and determine scope. And finally, have an open bid process to solicit qualified entities to design a robust internet grid for the nation before actual implementation of the grid. With this approach, Ghana can avoid some of the mistakes made by early adopters.
Some emerging world economies have been able to avoid similar mistakes made by early adopters of the internet and have developed technology grids of the future. The top 10 countries with the fastest internet speed in the world include South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Latvia. This is according to Soham Sarkar of Akamai, a Cambridge Massachusetts based CDN (Content Delivery Provider) provider organization that works towards making Internet fast, reliable and secure and has more than 2,000,000 servers in more than 120 locations. To put things in perspective, the U.S. comes in at No. 13 with 12.6 Mbps when the global average is at 5.1 Mbps and 57.3 Mbps when global is at 32.2 Mbps. However, the average peak speed in the U.S. has steadily improved over the past year.
The countries that will flourish in the new technology economy are those willing to risk investing in its future, and Ghana is no exception. The focus for Ghana must be on a strategic plan to build a high-performance knowledge computing infrastructure capable of supporting the exchange of the “Big Data” generation.” IBM defines big data as every bit of information “…being generated by everything around us at all times. Every digital process and social media exchange produces it. Systems, sensors and mobile devices transmit it. Big data is arriving from multiple sources at an alarming velocity, volume and variety. To extract meaningful value from big data, you need optimal processing power, analytics capabilities and skills.”
As the globe continues to become connected and expand its electronic communications footprints through social media, and as more and more businesses, cities and towns, hospitals, and educational institutions seek to collaborate in various forms, there will be a need for big data and the need to move big data. Ghana is fortunate enough to have a new president, in HE Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, with extraordinary depth, capable and knowledge to move Ghana to where it needs to be. Besides being a man of substance and depth, he is also a strong advocate for innovation with technology. He is a visionary who has proposed a policy of one village, one factory. I suspect that the best of those factories will be cities and towns that combine employment opportunities with hospitals and clinics, universities, and dynamic business communities with high speed broadband internet connectivity. These are the employment engines of the future.
Finally, the critical questions for Ghana will have to be how to deploy high-speed networks capacity capable of handling not just applications of today but also provide sustainable support to those industrial villages and towns, and how to help educate the workers of the new economy. This is a value-added proposition that will result in creating and maintaining a sustainable middle class economy. Imagine the forward-looking economy that all Ghanaians can participate in if Ghana invests in a strategic planning and deployment of future-looking technology infrastructure, not to mention potential job opportunities in the technology services delivery and support sectors.
Anthony Adade is a US-based Ghanaian technology executive. Dr. Adade has many years of executive leadership experience in IT in the business and public sectors, and is currently the Chief Information Officer at a state university of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the US.