MACRA launches Universal Service Fund’s strategic plan

Established in 2018 under the Communications Act, Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) has officially launched a 5-year strategic plan of the Universal Service Fund, which is set to promote the adoption of information & communication technology (ICT) services in the rural and underserved areas of the country.

Operationalized in 2019, the Fund also promotes the availability, accessibility and affordability of ICT services by deploying communication infrastructure.

At the official launch of the plan on Tuesday at Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre — that was graced by Minister of Information & Digitalisation, Gospel Kazako, — Board chairperson Stanley Khaila said this is one of the initiatives to realize MACRA’s mandate “of ensuring that as far as practicable, dependable and affordable communications services are provided throughout Malawi”.

Minister of Information Kazako and Board chairperson Stanley Khaila

“The Fund finances ICT projects in the telecommunication, broadcasting, and postal sectors for a digitally inclusive Malawi — helping the country bridge the digital divide and make strides towards an information-rich society and turning our ICT potential into tangible benefits.

“In this information era that we are currently in, access to ICT services is no longer a luxury but a necessity. All across the globe, we are witnessing a shift where ICT is becoming the backbone in which countries are building their economies and as Malawi, we cannot be left behind.”

Khaila added that the strategic plan “has been informed by a gap analysis study which was conducted in 2020 with the aim of mapping out the communication gaps within each sector of the ICT industry” and that it “serves to address these gaps through various initiatives and interventions”.

The Fund has been in operation since 2019 and some of the projects being carried out in the telecommunication sector include;

➢ The rural broadband project, which seeks to expand the broadband coverage by licensing community internet service providers to provide connectivity to a certain underserved area;

➢ Connect a school project which aims at building ICT capacity for secondary schools by supplying printers and computers, providing internet connectivity, and teaching digital skills;

➢ Public WIFI project to see 13 institutions across the country connected to the internet;

➢ The person with Disability project, which will provide support to institutions for people with disability by supplying assisted technology, IT equipment, internet connectivity and provide digital skills.

A glittering official launch

In the Broadcasting sector:

➢ Digital inclusion project which will entail the training of sign language interpreters who will be deployed in all Television stations;

➢ Subsidize cost of decoders;

➢ Broadcast coverage fillers by providing towers in areas that do not have broadcast signals;

In the postal sector:

➢ The mail Conveyance project aims at improving access to mail in rural areas by providing motorcycles to the Malawi Post Corporation (MPC) to enhance its operations as a designated postal operator;

➢ Fleet management project, this project aims to build the capacity of courier operators to reach rural areas;

➢ The Fund also plans on providing a platform where all players in the postal sector can interact to promote the growth of the sector.

Khaila took cognizance that the projects “are a drop in the ocean in ensuring accessible and affordable ICT services for all” but was quick to assure the Minister and the gathering that MACRA “is committed to this course and the strategic plan is imperative to our success”.

Guests to the launch

“I also want to implore all the stakeholders present this evening that if we are to bridge the digital divide then we all have to play our role.”

He applauded all MACRA licensees who remit a levy towards the Fund, saying their “commitment to the development of the ICT sector is commendable”.

In his remarks, Minister Kazako said at every sitting of Parliament, almost all questions that appear against his Ministry, “focus on the need for connectivity of various communications services across the country.

“This is clear testimony that as a country we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that every Malawian, especially those in remotest and under deserved areas, are connected to various communications services.”

He thus added credence that the Fund “is the most reliable and credible solution to link up all unconnected Malawians”.

“The USF is the most dependable tool that will facilitate that all Malawians, regardless of where they are domiciled, are enjoying fruits that come with the Communications Services equally.

“Although our USF seems to have taken-off somehow late compared to our neighbours and other members of the ITU family, all hope is not lost.

“Actually rolling out such initiatives later than others has its own benefits. We have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others and also adopt the innovative and productive ways of making USF a success.”

He stressed that the Fund is expected “to unlock bottlenecks in the communications sector by ensuring that the services are available, accessible and affordable”.

He, however, took exceptional note that the Fund had been idle for too long since it was established in 2018 that had been “ably resources with contributions from players in the communications sector”.

“Looking at the needs that Malawi has in the sector, especially in the remotest and under-deserved areas, it is unacceptable for us to just be keeping the funds without disbursing them towards communications services that people of Malawi need.

“It is the expectation of Government that everyone managing these funds is fully aware that these funds are being managed on behalf of the people of Malawi and not on our own behalf.”

Kazako emphasized that the Fund should be managed with Malawians at the centre of every decision made and that it should be “abused or misused or mismanaged in every way”.

“I expect the Committee managing the Fund to be accountable and transparent in its operations and ensure that proposals are considered ethically, professionally and objectively without any personal or nepotistic considerations.”

The Fund’s committee chairperson, Pastor Charles Thangalimodzi disclosed that the Fund was established in 2018 whose process involved consultation meetings with the telecommunications, broadcasting and postal sectors to address various ICT gaps and to ensure digital infrastructure and services are made available, accessible and affordable throughout Malawi.

“In 2019, the Fund was set up with the yearly contribution of all the licensed operators by MACRA in form of a levy and USF rules were drafted to guide the operations.

“I am pleased to state that since its operationalization, the Fund has been able to address some communication gaps and design various interventions to address those gaps such as, connecting schools and public institutions to internet, provision of motorcycle to enhance mail conveyance in the postal sector.

“At this point, I want to commend MACRA for the rigorous consultation meetings it had with the various stakeholders in the development of the USF strategic plan.”

Pastor Thangalimodzi assured that “all the strides towards the development of the plan have been achieved [and] shall have “a successful five years” that it is covering.

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