The digital divide can be bridged
Hi-tech advances make it possible for all Africa to get connected
THE International Telecommunication Union, ITU, and the UN’s scientific organisation, Unesco, in their state of the broadband report say 1.5 billion more people use the internet today than in 2010, but 52% of the world’s population are still without access.
Of the people without, 18% live in Africa. If we translate this into numbers, it means that of the 1 billion people in Africa there are 583 million who do not have internet access on their cellphones and 783 million people do not have any access to the internet at all.
The report states that global broadband continues to show “healthy growth” but there are challenges.
Some of it includes the growing digital inequality between developed and developing countries, the rates, roll-outs and financing needs of new deployments and network upgrades making internet access more affordable in developing countries.
This is the elephant in the room: how do we make internet access affordable and accessible for all?
The reality is that a basic right in the developed world remains elusive for millions of Africans. And closer to home, at a recent Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting in Durban, ministers of communications and ICT said that unless countries increase access to the internet and reliable broadband for their citizens, it would be “difficult” for the region to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
If we all agree that we need to ensure access to citizens why is it not happening? Africa is the new frontier At the recent International Broadcast Convention in Amsterdam, global technology firms were all in unison: Africa is the new frontier and internet can be delivered to all if there is the political will from our leaders.
“We have the solutions to take high-speed internet to Africa.
“We can deliver a hi-tech solution and deliver it to rural Africans in villages but we need local partners and not a narrowminded interest for only a few,” says Thomas Wrede, vice-president new technology and standards at global hi-tech firm SES.
“Large gaps in connectivity persist, mainly due to the lack of infrastructure, affordability, lack of skills,” and access to the internet could bridge this gap, he added.
New technology is there But it’s time Africa looked out of the box at all options to ensure universal access to its population. Everyone is in agreement that Africa represents the future of the world, a continent with a young population that will double over the next 10 to 15 years.
Steve Collar, chief executive of SES Networks, told African Independent: “You can unlock this potential and connectivity and access is one of the key enablers. It is as important as a railway system, it’s the most powerful thing to do and connectivity gives people the ability to change lives.”
And Collar should know. He’s been involved in ensuring internet access to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) and Chad. They have also been assisting in rolling out services in Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and Madagascar.
“What we see is if you bring connectivity to main cities and rural areas… the benefits are huge.”
The company recently announced the next journey in delivering to the world, the O3b mPower network system that will deliver efficient, high-performance communications to users.
“By connecting the hardest parts of the world to the internet, such as the South Sudanese capital, Juba, and Ndjamena in Chad, you will really see the economic situation change for the better,” he adds.
O3b mPower can deliver fibre connectivity to every city and village, which would result in all people having equal and stable connectivity globally.
Stable policy environment But providing this type of access on the continent means there has to be “stable and predictable policy and a government laying out really clear rules,” which means allowing free access to implement the system, says Coller.
“Our ask is that we are ready to invest to bring services to offer to Africa but we need a clear regulatory framework.
“Africa has a young population with more and more (people) being educated so the potential is huge to facilitate better communications and economic development, ultimately businesses and local entrepreneurs benefit.”
Unlocking growth For instance, the World Bank in South Africa said the “untapped” potential for absorbing and adapting foreign technologies can be turned into a more powerful driver of corporate profitability and economic growth.
World Bank programme leader Sebastien Dessus said: “Innovation can help improve the lives of the poor through the provision of better and cheaper goods and services and expand economic opportunities through the introduction of disruptive technologies that can lower barriers to competition.”
Satellite seems to be the most promising solution that can provide reliable connectivity to rural and remote areas.
However, some worry satellite internet is just too expensive to be a viable solution for Africa.
However, technology entities such as SES and others believe this is not the case. There has been a surge in the number of satellite internet service providers in Africa, which in turn has lowered the costs, and made the technology more affordable.
As the ITU/Unesco report says, the increase in broadband capacity spurred by new technologies, coupled with advances in satellite system design and launch processes, are enabling new capabilities, and driving down costs for rural and urban end users.
• Crystal Orderson presents The Africa Report on the 702 Morning Show and is a research associate at Wits University.