The dig­i­tal di­vide can be bridged

Hi-tech ad­vances make it pos­si­ble for all Africa to get con­nected

African Independent - - OUTLOOK - CRYS­TAL ORDERSON

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.

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