Digital apartheid: separate and unequal

Without universal access to broadband, South Africa’s economic and social divisions will remain entrenched. By Craig Wilson.

Craig Wilson

Craig Wilson

Anyone who has attended any sort of telecommunications-related presentation in the past couple of years will have come across the World Bank’s finding that a 10% increase in broadband penetration equates to a 1,4% increase in GDP in low- and middle-income economies.

That statistic makes a compelling and concise case for driving broadband access, but it only tells a fraction of the story. Expediting broadband access is crucial not only for creating jobs, but for ensuring that the economically marginalised have a fighting chance in an increasingly digitally driven knowledge economy.

In South Africa, even corrective measures like black economic empowerment won’t magically imbue the digital have-nots with the sorts of skills the global mainstream economy demands.

Once the shining light of Africa in terms of connectivity, South Africa continues to fall behind other developing nations, including some in Africa, when it comes to metrics such as access to broadband, cost of connectivity — fixed and mobile — and even the cost of mobile telephony, despite the country having the most mature mobile industry on the continent.

We ought to be ashamed. But, falling behind isn’t simply a matter of pride. Broadband access is rapidly becoming the new divide between rich and poor.

Local researcher Arthur Goldstuck talks about the “participation curve” — the time it takes from getting online to being sufficiently familiar with, and trusting of, technology to begin shopping online or using cloud-based services, let alone developing applications or online services. It’s the last of these that’s the most important and it takes the longest time online to achieve.

Meaningful, sustainable job creation doesn’t come from government but from the private sector. More specifically, it comes from entrepreneurs who start new businesses and, in doing so, create new jobs.

By keeping broadband prices high, we keep people out of the mainstream economy. That’s not to say that access to broadband is a substitute for quality education, but without it we exclude the majority of the population from the possibility of self-education and the basic computer literacy that comes from having connected devices with which to play and learn.

There’s another important point to consider and that is the importance of correctly defining “access”. If by access we mean mobile data coverage for 100% of the population, we are aiming far too low. Do we really want to rank access from a basic smartphone alongside what’s available using a laptop or desktop with an uncapped fixed-line connection?

It may be possible to start and run a small business from a basic Android smartphone, but there are limitations to what can be achieved with mobile access alone. Africa will continue to find novel ways of getting the most out of mobile, but it’s far from an ideal solution.

When it comes to digital competence, every day matters. Children that grow up in homes full of technology grow up unintimidated by it. These “digital natives” are precisely the people we want to be creating across as much of the spectrum as possible.

By last year, according to the International Telecommunication Union, 95 countries — including 48 developing ones — offered fixed-line broadband subscriptions at a cost of 5% of their citizens’ average gross monthly income or less.

At the same time, the global penetration rate for fixed-line broadband is a little shy of 10%. According to Telkom’s most recent results, South Africa has 870 000 fixed broadband subscriptions. That’s shocking for a country with population of more than 50m.

The United Nations is considering classifying broadband access as a basic human right. South Africa would do well to take heed of this. Without meaningful, affordable and ubiquitous broadband access and cheap, readily available devices, South Africa is condemning the majority of its population to living outside of the modern knowledge economy.  — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media

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