Including consumers in policy-making

During the late 1990s, Botswana, like several other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, began the transition away from having a single, government-owned telecommunications provider (Botswana Telecommunications Corporation, BTC). In 1996, the parliament passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which established the Botswana Telecommunications Authority (BTA) and allowed for private operators to apply for licenses. In that year, fixed teledensity was 4.79 subscriptions per 100 people. Soon after, private competitors entered the field: in 1998, BTA awarded the first mobile licenses to two providers, Mascom Wireless (Pty) Ltd and Vista Cellular. The first license for an internet service provider was awarded the following year, in 1999. These actions helped establish the groundwork for competition in the telecommunications sector over the next decade.

When full market liberalisation was introduced in 2006, mobile network operators were permitted to construct their own infrastructure for the first time and mobile teledensity rose more rapidly than fixed; this happened despite the ability of other internet service providers (ISPs) to offer voice over internet protocol — a potential competitor to mobile telephony — being initiated in the same year.

Additional efforts to improve the ICT sector in the country came in 2007, when the government of Botswana officially launched a national ICT plan called the National Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Policy, also known as “Maitlamo”, following its initial development in 2004. Maitlamo was a blueprint for the development of the ICT sector in Botswana through 2016; it placed particular emphasis on the Batswana people, with the aim to promote and strengthen community cohesion through digital skills development and increased connectivity. The government’s strategy to successfully implement this policy emphasised adopting a participatory focus: “All segments of society — the public sector, industry, and civil society — must now work together to seize the unprecedented opportunity that lies in front of us” (Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology, 2007). With the introduction of Maitlamo, Botswana subsequently undertook several initiatives that infused citizen-focused participatory processes in its policy-making approach through 2016 and beyond.

In 2012, Members of Parliament (MPs) drew up an ICT Master Plan, which acknowledged that as part of their role as duly elected representatives of the Batswana people, there was a need to leverage ICT tools to foster further democratic governance and public service delivery. In this plan, MPs would participate in capacity building initiatives where they could learn more about ICTs, their benefits, gain knowledge on how to sensitise the public to ICTs, and promote the adoption of ICTs within their constituencies. The plan was presented to members of the public, including ICT experts and the country’s business community, for feedback. One objective of the ICT Master Plan was to enhance “citizens’ participation and foster … better relations between MPs and their constituents,” (Botswana Parliament, 2012), building a role for public participation in the legislative activities of the Botswana Parliament.

Several projects and new procedures launched as part of this ICT Master Plan have subsequently become part of the regulatory environment for telecommunications in Botswana.

One example is the Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH), created by the Ministry of Infrastructure, Science and Technology in 2012, with a mandate to drive innovation in Botswana and to serve as a home to innovative businesses and research ventures. Activities to realise this mandate include partnerships with research institutions and tech companies inside Botswana and abroad to “harness the ideas and innovation from the public” (BIH, 2016) in order to build an ecosystem in which innovative actors and initiatives can flourish.

Another example of consumer participation and influence in ICT policy-making in Botswana is Regulatory Directive No. 1 of 2017. This directive was inspired by previous studies conducted that aimed to ascertain the concerns of consumers, foremost of which were the high prices of mobile broadband, off-network mobile calls, and providers’ uncompetitive behaviour.

The BTA of 1996 was replaced in 2013 by the Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA). Since its creation, BOCRA has made use of several different approaches to participatory policy-making. In 2017, BOCRA created a questionnaire for consumers to evaluate the quality of service (QoS) offered by mobile network operators. The aim of the campaign was to identify common problems and areas of poor network quality to guide appropriate interventions that might help improve QoS within the sector. Participants could submit their questionnaire by email or post. In January 2018, BOCRA issued an invitation to stakeholders to make written submissions on the Draft Communications Authority Regulations.

In another example from 2018, BOCRA created a survey on Google Docs and invited all private schools in the country to take part. The survey was designed to ascertain private schools’ communications needs. BOCRA stated that the information collected would be analysed to understand the availability and use of communication services in these schools. Survey analysis would also be utilised to influence future regulatory models designed to help address existing problems surrounding connectivity access in the education sector.

Participatory policy-making by BOCRA also took the form of in-person consultative meetings. In 2018, BOCRA organised a national conference on “The Future of Broadcasting in the Era of Emerging Technologies”, and encouraged industry stakeholders to participate. At the conference, BOCRA  educated attendees on their mandate and solicited feedback from the public on regulatory instruments they were proposing. In 2018, BOCRA publicly responded to a newspaper article written by a concerned citizen who questioned some of the regulator’s recent decisions and activities.

By 2015, Botswana achieved mobile penetration of nearly 168%, though this level dipped slightly to 167% in 2019. Despite the slight drop, this represents an impressive level of growth in access to mobile telephony in just over 20 years. On the fixed side, Botswana was recognised by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation for its work to increase internet access, and was awarded the Commonwealth ICT Award for Best Universal Access Initiative in 2016 for BOCRA’s use of its universal access and service fund to establish WiFi hotspots in key strategic public areas, including bus stations, hospitals, shopping centres, and airports. Botswana was ranked fourth for countries in Africa in the International Telecommunication Union’s ICT Development Index (IDI) in 2017, and is one of just a handful of countries in sub-Saharan Africa to have met the ‘1 for 2’ affordability standard, with 1GB of mobile data costing around 1.4% of average monthly income in 2019.

Nonetheless, there is much yet to be done in terms of expanding ICT access to the entire population. Despite approaches to involve consumers in policy-making, most internet users are in urban areas and people in rural areas remain largely excluded from access to the internet. Those Batswana who do have internet access often face slow speeds. Moreover, the cost of mobile broadband remains high — in 2017, Botswana ranked 11th out of the 15 countries of the Southern African Development Community in terms of the cost of internet, and in 2018, fixed teledensity fell to 6.3%. Areas where public participation in ICT policy-making can be improved include the need for discussions about the digital sphere and human rights, data privacy, and safety (Research ICT Africa, 2020).