As a nation that suffered great infrastructural destruction during long years of conflict which was destroyed or plundered during two recent civil wars (1989–1996 and 1999–2003). Liberia’s socio-economic development has been constrained by poor telecommunications infrastructure. Corruption is rife and unemployment and illiteracy are endemic in the country.The Internet is a world-wide public computer network. It provides access to a number of communication services including the World Wide Web and carries email, news, entertainment and data files, irrespective of the device used (not assumed to be only via a computer – it may also be by mobile phone, PDA, games machine, digital TV etc.). Access can be via a fixed or mobile network.
Information and Communication Technologies are key building blocks of the digital economy, to facilitate trade and drive e-commerce. Strong growth in ICT infrastructure, connectivity, access and use promise great development opportunities but the full potential of the Internet remains untapped, as over half the world’s population remains offline. Liberia’s commercial internet sector is still behind the majority of African countries. As of December 2020, Nigeria had more than 203 million internet users. Second-ranked Egypt had 54.74 million users. The majority of web traffic in leading digital markets in Africa originated from mobile devices in Nigeria, one of the countries with the biggest number of internet users worldwide, 74 percent of web traffic was generated via smartphones and roughly 24 percent via PC devices. Today’s smartphones and tablets have computer power equivalent to that of yesterday’s computers and provide a similar range of functions. This is connected to the fact that mobile connections are much cheaper and do not require the infrastructure that is needed for traditional desktop PCs with fixed-line internet connections. Access to bandwidth in Liberia is among the lowest in the region with internet penetration currently stands at 19%.
The landing of the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine fiber-optic cable of the Western Africa Regional Communications Infrastructure Program (WARCIP) in Monrovia in early November 2011 has already had an impact on ordinary Liberians. The Internet penetration rate was 8.4% in 2017. Less than 0.05% of the population had access to fixed broadband in 2012, and there were only 3.4 IP addresses per 1000 people.
Operators have traditionally been the main source of telecommunications data, so information on subscriptions has been widely available for most countries. This gives a general idea of access, but a more precise measure is the penetration rate – the share of households with access to telecommunications. The fixed-line market is effected under a monopoly of the incumbent operator, Libtelco (Liberia Telecommunications Corporation), although open competition has been legally possible since 2007. Libtelco is currently using its existing ownership over cable conducts in the Monrovia area to construct a fiber-optic communications network that will connect to the cable system. The limited services available are found almost exclusively in the capital, Monrovia. Mobile coverage reaches a number of other towns and rural areas by four mobile-cellular network operators.
Policy-making and regulation for the ICT sector in developing counties are complex and difficult challenges, for several reasons. The issues are complex and rapidly changing as technologies and business models change. The political economy of ICT sector reform is highly sensitive, both because of vested interests and because of labour and revenue implications of restructuring, privatization and competition. And policy and regulation are by their nature incremental, contextual processes shaped by local realities.
The Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) is the official agency dedicated to regulating the telecommunications market in Liberia. Regulations of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority rolled out in September 2019 brought these quite affordable prices to an abrupt end. Being the sector regulator, the Liberia Telecommunications Authority introduced floor prices a move that some experts say is unprecedented in the sector. The Liberia Telecommunications Authority explained that the essence of the new floor price is to end “price war” between the only two GSM operators in the country, open up the market and ensure competition. In 2018, the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA) issued an order that imposed price floors and surcharges on net voice calls and data, essentially putting an end to a three-day free calls and data bundles that used to cost $1 United States dollar.
During the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the government of Liberia plans to enforce a new tariff that will further increase revenue by implementing a mobile phone company surcharge. Facing harsh economic conditions due to the pandemic, internet and voice call users have taken their pent-up anger to the streets on June 25 2020, setting up roadblocks, burning tires and chanting anti-government songs related to the tax surcharge. The Liberian National Police arrested a few protesters during the protest.
Several opposition leaders oppose the surcharge, saying that the additional fee will stifle the digital rights of everyday Liberians. The country’s two main service operators Orange and Lonestar are also opposed to the surcharge. In fact, Orange Liberia’s Chief Executive Officer Mamadou Coulibaly was arrested by the National Security Agency in connection with the protest action.
In October 2020, Liberia’s mobile operators, Orange Liberia and Lonestar Cell MTN announced their victory on the removal of mandatory surcharges which were imposed by Liberia’s Telecommunications Authority to improve competitiveness in the market. The Liberia’s Telecommunications Authority imposed additional surcharges of $0.008 per minute of voice calls and $0.0065 per megabyte of data.
During the past few years more information on information and communication technology use has become available from household and business surveys. Also important are data on actual use of telecommunications services. Ideally, statistics on telecommunications (and other information and communications technologies) should be compiled for all three measures: subscriptions, access, and use. The Inclusive Internet Index ranks Liberia 100th, which indicate that the country is one of the two weakest countries in the overall index, Liberia is last in two pillars Availability and Affordability and 98th in Readiness (Measured as a percentage of per-capita national income, the country has the highest fixed broadband prices in the index; mobile data prices are also among the highest.)
Another from research from the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) indicate that Liberia ranks 56 out of 61 countries globally on the affordability of the internet as of 2020. This ranking is based on the cost of data in relation to the average monthly income. This provides more limitations for youths and MSMEs to access the Internet. The country does not meet the UN Broadband Commission’s affordability threshold. While the highest 20% of income earners on average pay 8% of their monthly income for 1GB of data, it costs the lowest 20% of earners a staggering 47.56% to access the same far above the 2% target.
The international community and the government of Liberia should craft a broadband policy and deploy a backbone for a prolific connectivity in Liberia because that deployment of a backbone network in conjunction with the adoption of a clear and results focused Broadband policy could contribute significantly to improving the lives of the people in Liberia and it will connect Government, Schools, Hospitals and Clinics to the Fibre Network which will give them the opportunity to utilize the latest technology and utilize e-Education and e-Medicine.
Health: Liberia has only 300 doctors for a population of 4.5 million. Internet access will open up immense possibilities for telemedicine, and allow doctors to spend less time on paperwork typically about two hours every day and more time treating patients, leading to healthier and more economically productive Liberians and reducing strains on government services.
Agriculture: Liberians heavily depend for agriculture sector living still operates at the subsistence levels. Basic infrastructure; roads, electricity and water supply systems is virtually non-existent in many places, making it difficult to develop a manufacturing sector and leaving the country heavily dependent on commodity exports whose prices have suffered sharp declines. Given Liberia’s difficult road conditions, affordable broadband internet access will make it easier to reach rural farmers with agricultural extension services including information on how to prevent and treat pest infestation, and recommendations for which crops and seed varieties farmers should consider planting and when they should plant.
Education: Education system in the country is inadequate, plagued by an acute shortage of qualified teachers and adequate learning facilities. In such a school system, internet access would allow one trained teacher to literally reach thousands of students. Faculty at the higher education level will have access to critical materials for research and teaching, enabling them to better contribute to national policy dialogue and make the university an incubator for technology and innovation.
Mostly, during the Ebola crisis, poor internet access and slow paper-based communications systems made it difficult to know how the epidemic was spreading or how to contain it. As a result, Liberia lost nearly 5,000 lives to the disease, including 8 percent of its doctors, nurses and midwives. High speed internet access will help Liberia respond more timely to future health shocks.
Consequently, unless policy-makers address infrastructure, affordability but also broader socio-economic challenges outside the ICT ecosystem, the Internet is liable to reinforce existing inequalities, instead of addressing them in Liberia. It is clear to us that affordable internet access will provide the country a unique opportunity to triumph many of its problems and to open-up its vast potential, driving the country towards greater self reliance.