Chukwuemeka Fred Agbata Jnr. (CFA)
A number of African countries have made progress in the digital space by expanding Internet connectivity. However, various reports have indicated that more still needs to be done. This is in view of a continental comparative analysis that shows Africa lagging behind other continents.
This is the case especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where a multiplicity of constraints related to economic, culture and politics, barricade progress of digital access.
Reports show that, Africa has the least Google activity and news tap with disparity between those with a high-tech connection and those without connection speed, lack of Internet access as well as devices – which are essential to getting online. The problems stem from slow economic growth and poor education that are prevalent in most African countries.
The expensive data and devices in low Gross Domestic Product countries make it difficult for consumers to purchase these essentials. The consumer behaviour among the small population that own smartphones and personal computers is quite revealing.
A person with digital gadgets may not see the value of subscribing to high-speed Internet bandwidth which is essential for maintaining a reliable connectivity. The reasons for such a decision may be lack of awareness or the high prices that accompany the service.
Among the rural dwellers that are more affected than their urban counterparts, the reason is poor grid infrastructure that limits their access to electricity.
A report by the World Bank claims that only 19 per cent of the Sub-Saharan African population has Internet connectivity compared to 88 per cent in North Africa.
The divide is also alarming among the sub-Saharan countries where 47 per cent of the population of Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa have access to the Internet compared to eight per cent of the population in Ethiopia and Tanzania.
None of the sub-Saharan countries has passed the 50 per cent mark of Internet access. This emphasises the need for drastic intervention by all stakeholders, particularly private and public partnerships, aimed at achieving widespread Internet connectivity throughout the length and breadth of Africa.
Francophone countries are the most affected negatively, in terms of digital connectivity, when compared to Anglophone countries. This is due to their slow economic growth. They also happen to be the countries with low ownership of smartphones.
In countries such as Congo and Mali, less than 22 per cent of the population own smartphones. A report by the Global ICT development indicates that mobile subscription and Internet use have increased in Africa but broadband subscription needs to improve as well.
It should be noted that widespread use of digital services is essential for economic and social progress. A slump in digital access within a country may not be helpful in achieving a collective socio-economic advancement.
Countries experiencing little or no growth in digital connectivity are missing out on job creation and employment opportunities presented by the Internet because it links individuals and businesses around the globe. In addition, it is easier to transact in real time, saving time and money.
A farmer in Rwanda can access real-time and relevant information of their produce via mobile phone while a businessman in Abuja who could not access a dial tone on their landline can do so now though Internet telephony.
A burgeoning digital country is able to keep its government on its toes by making them accountable through public participation. Sub-Saharan African countries would especially benefit from this due to alleged high cases of bribery and corruption perpetrated by public servants.
The public would be able to report unethical practices directly to the authorities without high level bureaucracy experienced, using conventional offline procedures. A good example of a country using digital services to report unethical conduct is Kenya through theipaidabribe.org.ke, a website that was launched to counter corruption in the country.
The question, however, remains how the digital divide in Africa can be ameliorated. There is no single solution other than a combination of technological and strategic partnerships as well as the goodwill of all stakeholders. Inculcating feasible and effective approaches will ensure that the solutions reach many people and are sustainable.
The first viable solution would be mobile connectivity. It is apparent by now that most African countries have made economic gains in their GDPs through the use of mobile Internet. For it to close the gap in Africa, however, it needs to be deployed in rural areas where the use is still low.
Since the consumers in the urban region use mobile phones extensively but restrict themselves to subscribing in mobile broadband, Internet providers need to rethink their prices since higher prices are usually a discouraging factor when it comes to subscriptions.
Majority of rural peopledo not have smartphones and this is an obstacle to bridging the digital divide. However, the application of the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data in mobile devices will allow users to connect with the network operators directly. This is economical because the users do not need to subscribe to a mobile bandwidth or purchase a 4G smartphone.
The second most feasible solution is optical networking that has the aptitude to generate large-capacity Internet through dense wave length division multiplexing. This technology will be supported by a legacy communication infrastructure that is common today. It is has already been applied in Mali and the outcomes are positive.
Ultimately, the digital divide in Africa will be bridged by the commitment and goodwill of all stakeholders. There has to be commitment towards bridging this gap and applying all the necessary technology and resources to ensure this.
Moreover, promoting public participation to educate the general public on the use and benefits of digital services to their businesses and personal well-being will prove useful.
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