Harness technology to drive inclusivity in communities
by Nompumelelo Mokou. Improving digital literacy and bridging the digital divide is becoming increasingly important for the emerging generation.
by Nompumelelo Mokou. As the 4IR continues to shape global societies and economies, improving digital literacy and bridging the digital divide is becoming increasingly important for the emerging generation of school leavers. Promoting digital transformation and inclusivity is a national imperative that can promote and stimulate widespread socio-economic growth and employment opportunities for all South Africans. The government and the private sector have a massive role to play in this process.
In August 2020, the 30-member Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) made eight recommendations that focus on building human capacity and positioning the country as a global player in 4IR. They included establishing creating a National Artificial Intelligence Institute; and a National Data Centre, as well as incentivising Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) to adopt 4IR technologies.
This is both proactive and ambitious but will count for nothing if the vast majority of the population do not have access to a high-speed fixed broadband network. Research suggests that only 55% of South Africans are Internet users, of which 95% use the mobile internet to stay connected. While 5G offers very high speeds it is more applicable in the IoT space such as connected cars and autonomous drones. Fixed broadband is essential for remote work, remote learning and the spread of digital literacy.
According to the latest ICASA State of ICT Report 2021, a little over two million homes have fixed broadband access. internet access at internet cafes, or at educational facilities. Connectivity in rural areas in some provinces remains extremely low, with figures ranging from 1.7% in Limpopo and 1.8% in the Northern Cape, to 6.2% in the North West Province and 6.9% in the Free State.
While mobile broadband connectivity in South Africa is relatively high, this alone will not be enough to keep pace with the rapidly evolving technologies that will make up the digital world of the near future. Fixed broadband, either via fibre or satellite or other “last mile” solutions offers a number of benefits to communities and society as a whole. These include connectivity to the ever-expanding digital economy, lays the foundation for the Internet of Things, as well as the benefits of access to analytics and big data. Within the context of the 4IR, data is the new oil and broadband is the pipeline.
There are knock on economic benefits as high-speed connectivity will enable people to acquire digital skills and become better candidates for the emerging digital economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitisation of our daily lives by years by enforcing remote work, online shopping and the uptake of streaming media. All of these are just some of the areas that will generate new technologies and new employment opportunities. It is therefore the perfect time for government and the private sector to partner and invest in a national broadband initiative to invest in the infrastructure that will enable this new way of working.
Narrowing the digital divide
South Africa, like many countries around the world, faces the major challenge of servicing a large rural population. Rural areas are vast, rugged, and difficult to access. Homes are spread out and not laid out in easily accessible grids found in cities. Laying fibre is logistically challenging, and for many operators seen as unprofitable. Imaginative partnerships and a variety of technologies will be necessary to bridge the urban/rural digital divide. For example, Telkom recently launched its Smart Satellite solution using Ka-band technology. South Africa has vast open spaces and is scattered with rivers and mountain ranges. Satellite beams know no boundaries. Schools, clinics, homes and offices in the remote towns and villages across South Africa can all benefit from fast and secure satellite broadband. The digital divide will narrow. Other technology options such as WiFi and point-to-point TV whitespace are also options to consider. Various business models, including public/private partnerships and subsidised data rates will have to be considered.
Fixing the lack of fixed internet access in South Africa will require every stakeholder to play their part. This includes the government, which needs to work with the country’s major telecommunication operators to figure out the best strategy to accelerate the rollout of fixed broadband. There are policies and proposals on the table, and organisations such as the Digital Council in place. It is time for action before it is too late.
Nompumelelo Mokou, is Managing Director of Dimension Data as of May 2021. Formerly the Executive: Intelligent Customer Experience, Mokou is a Chartered Accountant by profession but has always been known for her love for business. She joined Dimension Data in 2016 and is constantly inspired and challenged by imminent change. She believes that greatness is not achieved alone but through multi-faceted people, expertise, contributions and opinions. This is what makes teams work. Her core philosophies by which she lives her life are to have faith and courage in all seasons and to never be afraid of challenges, no matter the size or complexity.
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