Eliminating the growing digital divide

According to the GSMA State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2018, 40% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lives in a region that has no coverage or limited network access

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BY ANTONY MUTUNGA

It has been about nine years since TeliaSonera Company introduced the fourth generation of the mobile technology (4G) to the world, which offers much greater speeds when compared to the third generation (3G). The 4Gl has also reduced the latency involved. Despite being introduced in the late 2009, it took almost three years for the technology to be launched in Africa with Angola being the first country to launch it in 2012.

Since then a majority of the African countries have concentrated on having commercial 4G services. According to GlobalData, one of the largest data and insights solutions providers in the world, at least 43 out of the 55 African countries are expected to offer commercial 4G services by the end of 2018. This is the case despite a majority of the developed countries already doing trials for the fifth generation of the mobile technology (5G).

Developed countries have been in competition to see who reaches the technology first even though the prior generations of mobile technology are still underutilized. According to Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of international telecommunication Union’s (ITU) telecommunications development bureau, the 2G and 3G are underutilized as even though they cover the planet, there still remain a large number of people who are yet to be connected to the internet.

In fact according to the Digital in 2018 report by We Are Social and Hootsuite, the number of people in the world who are not connected to the Internet currently stands at more than 3.5 billion. A majority of this number are in Africa where according to the Internet World Stats, as of December 2017, out of a population of 1.2 billion people only 455 million people are connected, the rest are offline.

The most affected have been the population that lives in rural areas, which are the majority, for example in Kenya, 74% of the population lives in rural areas. According to McKinsey & Company, globally, 64% of the people that are offline live in rural areas. As a result of being offline, they end up missing out on the advantages that the Internet offers in terms of making their lives better. The lack of the required infrastructure has been one of the major challenges that most of the African countries have been facing in their race to completely bring everyone online.

The lack of mobile Internet coverage and network access in most rural areas has been a major contributor to why many Africans still remain offline to date. For example, according to the GSMA State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2018, in sub-Saharan Africa 40% of the population lives in a region that has no coverage or limited network access.

This in addition to the lack of adjacent infrastructure such as grid electricity, have caused many people to be unable to come online. Africa still holds a large number of people living without electricity. For example, even though 76 million people were added to the grid between 2014 and 2016, the number of those who lack electricity remained the same, standing at 600 million people as of 2016. This shows how much infrastructure is important for Internet penetration to increase further in the continent.

In a bid to change this norm, several African governments have made steps in the right direction. Most countries, for instance, are focussing on connecting those living in rural areas to the electricity grid. This is evident in the fact that the newly connected population was majorly made up of those living in rural areas.

In fact rural electrification was able to increase from 16% to 23% in two years from 2014 to 2016. According to Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), electricity drives everything, so until we fix it, Africa faces huge challenges. “It’s the most critical issue holding back Africa’s development,” he added.

Additionally, some countries have come up with subsidies to attract network operators to increase their coverage so as to cover more people. Kenya’s the Communications Authority is, for instance, providing subsidies through its Universal Service Fund (USF) initiative in order to encourage telco operators to extend the mobile coverage to the rural areas of the country. The move has already attracted a solution by Huawei Technologies known as RuralStar that allows operators to extend their coverage at a low cost thus being able to reach those in rural areas.

Apart from the lack of infrastructure, affordability has been another challenge that many people in developing countries are facing, especially those that earn low incomes. Income continues to be a major barrier for the people to access the Internet. As a result of earning low incomes, most people especially those in rural areas are not able to allocate a lot of their money to mobile services.

In other areas, those with low incomes have no choice but to remain offline as despite being in an area with network coverage, the telco available charges prices that do not allow them to stay connected. This is usually the case in most rural areas where the people do not have an option of different operators thus they are forced to pay the high prices or remain offline.

According to State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2018, the cost of accessing 500MB of data is almost 10% of the monthly GDP per capita in low income countries while on the other hand, an entry level internet enabled device costs about 75% of the annual GDP per capita. This is mostly the case of most African countries as they lie in the group of low-income countries.

However, in order to make the internet more affordable to everyone, the government needs to rethink their tax policies in the sector. If the government were to rebalance the taxes on the sector, they would be able to reduce the prices of data and the products thus making them more affordable to the people. As a result, this would end up increasing the number of people that are online and in the long run it would also boost tax revenues.

Consumer readiness has been another barrier that has caused the number of people offline to reduce at a slower pace. The fact that to date, there is still a large number of the global population that remains illiterate has been a hindrance to many who remain offline as they do not understand the mobile technology. There are 750 million illiterate adults in the world today, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics says. With a majority being from the developing nations, they are unable to understand how the Internet can benefit them.

Gender inequality has also been a major barrier as women in most regions are not allowed to access the Internet as much as men are. This inequality has seen the number of women using mobile money services to be lower as compared to men in low and middle-income countries.

In order to have more people literate in information technology, most countries have introduced computer studies to school so as children are able to learn about the ever changing technology so as they have the information from an early age. In addition, governments have tried to reduce the cost of going to school in order to attract more people to study. As a result, global adult literacy increased by 200 million people from 86% to 87% according to UNESCO. This shows that the number of the literate is increasing and with it the number of those coming online.

It is indeed going to take quite a number of changes before everyone is connected to the internet; however there is a need to increase infrastructure and make mobile services more affordable so as everyone is able to access the Internet, which has the potential to accelerate economic growth and create more jobs in developing countries. Instead of rushing to reach the fifth generation by 2020, we should be utilizing the rest of the existing generations to deal with the growing digital divide.