In­equal­ity of dig­i­tal ac­cess must be over­come

Mo­bil­ity and in­ter­ac­tiv­ity are be­com­ing en­trenched through­out the African con­ti­nent

Business Day - Business Law and Tax Review - - BUSINESS LAW & TAX REVIEW - AYE­SHA DA­WOOD

THE migration to dig­i­tal de­vices brings about fun­da­men­tal changes in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, con­nect­ing peo­ple to each other and to sources of in­for­ma­tion in a man­ner that deeply af­fects so­ci­ety. We connect and in­ter­act in­stantly through short mes­sages and we hold video con­fer­ences with peo­ple around the world with­out any par­tic­i­pant leav­ing his or her home or of­fice. Text­books in class­rooms are be­ing dis­carded as chil­dren clam­ber into the on­line world which opens the doors to ed­u­ca­tion, gam­ing, video-on­de­mand, stream­ing, shop­ping and bank­ing and telemedicine.

Bor­ders are fall­ing as e-com­merce writes new rules, and hack­ing and se­cu­rity are mul­ti­mil­lion-dollar en­ter­prises. Mo­bil­ity and in­ter­ac­tiv­ity of com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vices are mould­ing new life­styles and busi­nesses.

Within this con­text, the con­tin­ued pro­tec­tion of free speech and pri­vacy in the on­line world ap­pear to co-ex­ist pre­car­i­ously as some gov­ern­ments look to block con­tent dis­tri­bu­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works.

Both free speech and pri­vacy are es­sen­tial rights in democ­ra­cies, more so among the de­vel­op­ing and un­der­de­vel­oped na­tions.

In Africa, the digi­ti­sa­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and the migration to mo­bile de­vices as­sist com­mu­ni­ties, es­pe­cially ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties who would oth­er­wise be iso­lated. Mo­bil­ity and in­ter­ac­tiv­ity are be­com­ing en­trenched through­out the con­ti­nent. The ques­tion is: at what cost?

The model through­out most of Africa is for gov­ern­ments to li­cense spec­trum to mo­bile op­er­a­tors whose ob­jec­tive is to make a profit. As they roll out their net­works and as de­vice man­u­fac­tur­ers bring new prod­ucts to mar­ket, the ques­tion is whether the fun­da­men­tal struc­tural in­equities are in any way al­tered for the ben­e­fit of the ma­jor­ity of eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple.

Apart from the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate and ac­cess small amounts of in­for­ma­tion through mo­bile de­vices, af­ford­abil­ity de­ter­mines the level of ac­cess to the mo­bile net­work.

A re­lated is­sue is whether model li­cens­ing may be struc­tured so that eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple may ben­e­fit.

In tele­vi­sion the migration from ana­logue to dig­i­tal broad­cast­ing makes the point force­fully. Within digi­ti­sa­tion in tele­vi­sion, much of the spec­trum is freed up and there is a dual na­tional ben­e­fit.

The first ad­van­tage to the free­ing up of spec­trum is that new mo­bile op­er­a­tors may be li­censed. Of im­por­tance is a li­cens­ing model that will serve to en­trench a di­ver­sity of op­er­a­tors who must meet roll-out and other so­cially use­ful obligations if they are to keep their li­cences.

The sec­ond ad­van­tage is that with digi­ti­sa­tion many more tele­vi­sion own­ers may be li­censed. Li­cens­ing of a di­ver­sity of own­ers with obligations to keep open the air­waves for a di­ver­sity of voices and dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties has pos­i­tive im­pli­ca­tions for free speech.

Pro­vid­ing ac­cess to com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works and in­vest­ments in the roll-out of th­ese net­works into un­der­de­vel­oped ar­eas as well as mod­els of spec­trum li­cens­ing have the po­ten­tial to fun­da­men­tally al­ter the na­ture of so­ci­ety.

The Novem­ber ITU 2014 Mea­sur­ing the In­for­ma­tion So­ci­ety re­port shines the spot­light on the con­cept that in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy (ICT) is a devel­op­ment en­abler if ap­plied and used ap­pro­pri­ately, is crit­i­cal to coun­tries that are mov­ing to­wards in­for­ma­tion or knowl­edge-based so­ci­eties, and is cen­tral to the ICT Devel­op­ment In­dex’s con­cep­tual frame­work.

Get­ting digitised is a demo­cratic en­abler. That is a corol­lary to devel­op­ment en­able­ment.

How this may be pos­si­ble through digi­ti­sa­tion is what Africa and other, less con­nected coun­tries and re­gions should be fo­cus­ing on.

Dig­i­tal busi­ness mod­els make busi­ness sense and mar­ket op­por­tu­ni­ties for li­cences, in­fra­struc­ture, con­tent and ac­cess en­ables democ­racy and devel­op­ment as well as ac­cess to cap­i­tal mar­kets and trade. Trans­for­ma­tive busi­ness mod­els are a sig­nif­i­cant part of the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion.

So let’s move Africa, Latin Amer­ica and parts of Asia Pa­cific out of the in­equal­ity co­nun­drum by shin­ing the spot­light on dig­i­tal net­works and invit­ing com­pe­ti­tion on more op­er­a­tors, broad­cast and in­ter­net net­works. In the process let’s aim for mak­ing broad­band uni­ver­sal and af­ford­able, and con­nect­ing homes and peo­ple on­line. Digi­ti­sa­tion may just be the re­gen­er­a­tive tool re­quired.

Mo­bil­ity and in­ter­ac­tiv­ity of com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vices are mould­ing new life­styles and busi­nesses

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