Inequality of digital access must be overcome

DIGITAL AFRICA : A networked and democratic Africa is about Digitising countries

Mobility and Interactivity are becoming entrenched throughout the African continent

 

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 her home/office. Text books in classrooms are being discarded as children clamber into the online world which opens the doors to education, gaming, video-on-demand, streaming, shopping and banking, telemedicine – and a dark underworld of child abuse.

 

Borders are falling as e-commerce writes new rules, and hacking and security are multi-million dollar enterprises in the developed and developing world. 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 governments look to blocking content distribution and communications networks. Both free speech and privacy are essential rights in democracies, more so among the developing and under-developed nations.

 

In Africa, the digitization of communications and the migration to mobile devices assist communities especially rural communities and 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 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 a 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 digitization in television, much spectrum is freed up and a dual national benefit takes effect.

 

  1. The first advantage of the freeing up of spectrum is that new mobile operators may be licensed. Of importance, is the 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.
  2. 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 have implications for free speech.

 

Providing access to communications networks and investments in the roll out-out of these networks into under-developed 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 spotlights the concept of ICT as a development enabler in correctly stating that  “the recognition that ICTs can be 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  Developemement Index’s conceptual framework.

 

Getting digitized is a democratic enabler. That is a corollary to development enablement. How this may be possible through digitisation is what Africa and other least 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, lets 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 lets aim for universalising broadband,making it affordable and connecting homes and people online. Digitisation may just be the regenerative tool.

 

Published in Business Day,  Business Law and Tax Review, March 2015.