Digital Connectivity: 15th March a costly warning and an opportunity

Dr Appiah-Adu is the Senior Policy Advisor, VP's Secretariat, Office of the President and Derrydean Dadzie Digital Transformation and Innovation Policy Advisor, CEO, Heritors Labs Limited
By: Kwaku APPIAH-ADU (PhD) & Derrydean DADZIE  
Starting from approximately 5 am on Thursday, 14th March 2024, West African nations, Ghana included, received a stark reminder that internet connectivity is not just a convenience but a necessity. It is the bedrock of our modern society and a foundation for the digital economy we are trying to build as nation. The recent outage was a costly warning but also an opportunity for us to act swiftly and decisively.
The public shock, lost productivity, and communication difficulties during the days that followed in Ghana told their own story of the critical function of the Internet in our businesses and daily lives. Internet Service Providers had to scramble to secure capacity on alternative cable connections unaffected, while the one main Telco unaffected enjoyed an immediate upsurge in popularity and customers.
The effects of this digital blackout were felt across the nation. Businesses were forced to send employees home, rendering expensive office spaces useless. A major international retailer in Accra had to close its doors as it couldn’t operate its internet-dependent POS and inventory systems. Remote workers were left stranded, unable to communicate or work with their employers and clients.
The economic toll of the internet outage caused by the submarine cable cut is yet to be fully quantified. However, the loss would certainly be significant, potentially running into millions of Ghana Cedis over the four days it took to restore some level of reliable internet access.
In perhaps the most painful way possible, our attention has been drawn yet again to the fact that internet access or connectivity forms a critical foundation for a digital economy. This must now serve as a clarion call to institute the controls necessary to firm up this foundation and ensure we build upon it wisely.
In the digital era, the expansion of internet access has been a focal point of development, particularly in Africa, where Internet and mobile penetration rates have soared. Governments and private sectors have made concerted efforts to bridge the digital divide, enabling a surge in digital application usage, as evidenced by the growing African presence on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
However, the notion of ‘Connectivity’ being a solved problem is misleading. Disparities in access persist, and the rapid evolution of digital technologies demands a shift in how we measure connectivity. It’s not just about having a connection; it’s about what people can do with it.
The moving target of ‘Connectivity’ is often underestimated by leaders and corporations, who tend to offer the bare minimum. The Internet has evolved from dial-up connections at 56kbps to broadband/4G connections at 20mbps, a 200-fold increase. Yet, as speeds have improved, so have the demands from media-intensive applications like streaming services, which require a minimum speed to function effectively. This impacts not only entertainment but also essential services like education and healthcare.
The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) champions for high-standard connectivity worldwide, emphasising that governments must prioritise reliable, affordable, and meaningful connectivity. Their framework reveals a stark contrast between general internet access and ‘meaningful connectivity.’ For instance, South Africa reports internet access for 63% of its population but ‘meaningful connectivity’ for only 13%.
How, then, do we address these gaps? Here are a few measures we have outlined in a recent book titled ‘The Enabling Architecture for A Digital Economy’, authored by Kwaku Appiah-Adu and Franklin Asare.

Clearly set  critical ‘connectivity’ targets
This requires being clear about the current & potential capabilities of existing infrastructure, the citizens’ broad needs, and the digital platforms’ requirements being rolled out by the governments.
For example, in March 2024, the Federal Trade Commission in the United States voted that ‘the minimum speed required to call a connection broadband will rise from 25Mbps to 100Mbps’. Thus, it pressures Internet service providers to adhere to clear standards that match their advertising.
From the authors’ standpoint, public regulators must hold ISPs accountable for maintaining connectivity speeds relevant to modern digital work and entertainment. When our telcos and ISPs advertise ‘4G internet’ or ‘fibre broadband’ Internet at high prices, what standards are they expected to meet? Is the public aware of those standards?
It’s time to consider internet access as a utility
It is time for us to join other nations worldwide in regulating Internet Service Provision as a utility, similar to water and electricity access. This would then allow us to tackle and address the provision of these services properly, the availability of backups, and the assurance of fair pricing for consumers.
Our regulations must reflect the base realities of the digital economies we are building. If we want to create a world where people register for government services, access entertainment, pay utility bills, go to the bank, and digitally vote, we must ensure every citizen’s right to participate meaningfully.
 One critical regulatory dynamic to push is that regulatory ideas and actions stimulates a more competitive connectivity sector. This would boost the quality of services and affordability, cementing
A failure to do so would create another profoundly inequitable social structure that further deepens the divides between the wealthy and the poor or urban vs rural dwellers.
Inculcate connectivity in our infrastructure planning, design, development and deployment
As we navigate the complex social dynamics and business needs of the 21st century, the imperative to weave digital connectivity into the fabric of our infrastructure development becomes increasingly evident. The Ghana Infrastructure Plan (GIP) for 2018-2047 by the National Development Planning Commission proposes expanding broadband services to ensure universal access and a strategic extension of fibre optic networks to reach the most remote, rural, and underserved communities.
To achieve this vision, the intersections between different types of infrastructure should be considered to unlock synergies. For instance, integrating fibre optic cables into the planning, designing, and constructing of highways and electrical networks could represent a leap towards efficiency and sustainability, especially for service providers.
Such strategic embedding of digital infrastructure mitigates future disruptions, significantly reduces costs, and ensures investments in strategic areas in the telecommunication industry, paving the way for a more competitive, connected and resilient digital economy.
Consequently, regulatory bodies and governments must establish and enforce new standards that reflect the realities of our digital era. Infrastructure projects must incorporate provisions for digital connectivity from the outset, ensuring that new roadways and utilities are ready conduits and right-of-way passages for fibre optic cables. This proactive approach eliminates the need for costly retrofits and ensures that digital infrastructure grows in tandem with physical infrastructure.
A call to action for policymakers and industry leaders
The disruptions experienced on 15th March laid bare our collective vulnerabilities to digital interruptions, spotlighting the indispensable role of robust, resilient connectivity in today’s society. The day not only highlighted the fragility and inadequacy of Ghana’s digital infrastructure, it also pointed to the profound opportunity to reassess and reinforce the foundations of our digital economy.
As Ghana strives to forge a more connected Ghana, policymakers, industry leaders, and stakeholders must extend their focus beyond traditional infrastructure development to include a comprehensive strategy for digital connectivity. This approach should tackle the digital divide head-on, guarantee every citizen affordable, meaningful and quality Internet access, spur innovation, and promote a competitive business environment for service providers.
Our shared commitment to these ideals will not only mitigate future risks but also unlock the full potential of a digital economy that is sustainable, value-driven, profitable, inclusive, and resilient. Embracing this holistic approach to connectivity will ensure that Ghana’s digital landscape is equipped to support the aspirations of its people and the growth of its economy on the global stage.

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