A Bridge Across the African Divide

by david.nunes
Sizwe NxasanaIssue:Africa and the Middle East II 2002
Article no.:1
Topic:A Bridge Across the African Divide
Author:Sizwe Nxasana
Title:Chief Executive Officer
PDF size:32KB

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Article abstract

The economy is knowledge driven and digital – those who have access to information do business those without are marginalized. This digital divide is nowhere more evident than in Africa. What can be done to eliminate the divide? Access is the central issue – you have it or you do not. To cross the divide, access to computers, the Internet and high-speed connections is needed. This will require regulatory reform, liberalisation, privatisation and cooperation between government, and public and private organizations.

Full Article

Ten years ago when Alvin Toffler gazed into the future and foresaw the coming of three contrasting and competing civilizations, he could not have known just how accurate his prediction would turn out to be. His vision of a trisected world symbolised by the hoe, the assembly line and the Internet has come to pass, and today we are witnesses to his foretelling that one of these civilizations would rise to dominance because of the way it creates and exploits knowledge. The old adage “knowledge is power” has become the mantra of the 21st century. In the global economy the creation and utilisation of information is the key element of economic prosperity, and as the demand for knowledge and information increases, other resources become less important. This often results in first world countries doing business with one another, to the detriment of many developing countries around the world who are relegated to being either markets or mere providers of raw materials. Feeding the insatiable hunger for more information delivered at a faster speed is the increasing sophistication of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry. However, while all kinds of information travel through cyberspace at the press of a button, people in Africa and other developing regions are eking out a living from the unforgiving soil. Victims of the digital famine, they stand very little chance of sharing in real sustainable economic growth unless the information revolution is expanded to all parts of the globe. The African divide at a glance According to the International Telecommunication Union’s key global Telecom indicators for the World Telecommunication Service Sector, main telephone lines have almost doubled from 574 million subscribers in 1992 to 1115 million in 2002. Mobile cellular subscribers have increased phenomenally from 23 million in 1992 to 1390 million just 10 years later. There has also been an increase in personal computer users from 150 million in 1992 to 605 million users. Internet users have grown from 6.9 million in 1992 to 655 million users worldwide. In stark contrast, Africa – home to one in eight of the world’s people – has just one in 50 of the world’s fixed line subscribers, one in 66 of the world’s mobile cellular subscribers and one in 70 of the world’s personal computers. The gap between Africa and the rest of the world with regard to Internet connectivity is huge. Africa’s Internet users account for only about 1% of the world’s total. Computer penetration is less than 3 per 1000 people. At the same time, the rate of growth in Internet host computers in Africa is much slower than that achieved in Latin America and Asia-Pacific. Even within Africa disparities persist with approximately 90% of African Internet users in South Africa. In the country itself, disparities exist between urban and rural areas. Other statistics are equally disturbing. Only 2.5% of the world’s televisions are on the continent while Africa, excluding South Africa, has only 2% of the world’s international telecommunications circuits. Sub-Saharan Africa has by far the least developed infrastructure in the world, with only 0.4% of the world’s telephone lines. These and other similar figures are well-known – the bottom line is that the vast majority of the world’s population is cut off from the economic benefits made possible by the networks spanning the globe today. The value of Information and Communication Technology The relevance of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is constantly questioned as to whether its development should be a priority for African countries while the crises of hunger, war, AIDS and environmental decay are ominous. While no one disputes that these calamities matter more than Internet access, and while no one underestimates the importance of, for example, access to basic health care, most people cannot but agree that ICT can play a major role in addressing these and other issues. It is quite simply a given that ICT is an indispensable tool for development on the African continent. ICT can make major contributions to reduce the continent’s poverty because it can overcome barriers of social and geographical isolation, increase access to information and education and enable the poor to participate in more of the decisions that affect their lives. ICT provides Africa with an opportunity to overcome some of the constraints to economic growth such as a lack of information on market trends and vast distances from markets. The recent surge in uptake of the Internet, e-mail and cellular technology, increased access to satellite television and improved data communications- enabling technology is proof of a growing demand, and a strong resolve to use technology to further Africa’s integration into the global economy. What can to be done to span the African divide? To answer this question, it is necessary to recognise that the issue of access lies at the heart of the divide. You either have access or you do not. It is as simple as that. To cross the divide, access to technologies such as computers, the Internet and high-speed networks must be broadened. Bridge one across the divide would therefore be increased bandwidth and a strengthening of the communications network spanning the continent with an emphasis on extending access to rural areas. Central to this issue is legislative and regulatory measures, which must ensure that the objective of increased teledensity is pursued. A second bridge would be the introduction of regulatory reform, liberalisation and privatisation, as well as allowing private enterprise to partner governments in building infrastructure that will meet the requirements of international investors and local business alike. The positive developments taking place on the continent are, in fact, mainly the result of governments relinquishing their grip on telecommunication monopolies, as well as joint ventures and strategic partnerships between first world corporations and developing nations that result in infrastructure modernisation. A third bridge that can span the divide is the introduction of trade and tax reforms on Information Technology and telecommunications, which will lower the cost of computer and communications hardware, software and equipment. In addition, a number of other avenues can be explored. Tax relief and tax incentives can, for example, be utilised to encourage the business community to donate computers to education and training institutions and to sponsor such institutions. Inextricably part of the continent Underpinning our involvement in African communication activities and projects is the firm belief that ICT plays an indispensable role in: § Economic development in infrastructure, human resources training and job creation; § Enabling efficient cross border business-to-business communications and transactions; § Improving intra-African communications for nation-building and regional integration; § Reducing dependence on non-African operators and facilities; § Retention of revenues generated in Africa; § The introduction and rollout of new state-of-art technologies in Africa A formidable global infrastructure supports the exchange of switched traffic and the provision of global hubbing services between Telekom the main local carrier and carriers outside South Africa. All international services are operated from two switching centres in Johannesburg. International Transmission Maintenance centres monitor and configure all transmission circuits to ensure best possible service quality, while the National Network Operations Centre (NNOC) in Centurion, Pretoria, manages and controls all international traffic and services in real time. The NNOC plays a vital role in managing transit traffic and guaranteeing traffic flow. Intelsat is the premier commercial satellite communication services provider. They currently have 22 geo-stationary satellites in operation, including operational spares in all 3 ocean regions, covering the entire globe. Intelsat has over 145 member countries and more than 200 investing entities. Through Intelsat, South Africa can access 14 satellites in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean Regions and reach all countries visible from the aforementioned satellites, thereby providing our full basket of services to Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas with direct links and the shortest possible backhauls. The SAT-3/WASC/SAFE cable gives international connectivity an unprecedented boost. This undersea cable projec,is owned by 35 telecommunications operators and links Africa with Asia and Europe. This initiative is a technological breakthrough of great significance to Africa, offering faster, more efficient trading channels between the continent and international markets. The SAT-3/WASC segment links South African with Europe, with 10 landings in 9 Western and Southern African countries. The SAFE (South Africa Far East) segment continues the connection to Malaysia, with a landing that brings India into the system. Upon completion this link will ultimately have the capacity to handle a total of 120 G/bits per second of information between terminals. This is equal to 5.8 million simultaneous telephone calls, while the SAFE segment will ultimately have the capacity of 130 G/bits per second which amounts to 6.3 million simultaneous telephone calls. Land-locked and neighbouring states in Africa will be able to link into the cable system via satellite and terrestrial connections, resulting in this project benefiting the continent as a whole. The SAT-3/WASC/SAFE project is probably the best example of a successful partnership between developed, developing and emerging economies on an African-initiated business concept. The SAT-3/WASC/SAFE project closes a long-existing gap in the international submarine cable market place and should cater for the continent’s burgeoning telecommunications needs for 25 years. Within the SADC region, we have been involved in a number of projects: § The upgrading of microwave, optical fibre and transmission systems to Synchronous Digital Hierarchy technology between South Africa and the neighbouring countries of Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia. § The digitisation of the Zimbabwe telecommunications microwave route linking the two counties. The R60 million project will see the current analogue link between Messina and Gweru upgraded to a digital link to facilitate ever-increasing volumes of communication traffic between the countries. The link within South Africa up to Messina is already digitised, as is the link within Zimbabwe from Gweru to Harare and Bulawayo. This benefits both countries – we can now deliver and receive phone traffic to one of our largest traffic destinations, plus we can gather Zimbabwe traffic in the worldwide market and deliver it to Zimbabwe TelOne through this high quality digital route. Zimbabwe TelOne benefits as the voice and data traffic penetration plays a role in increasing their revenue. § The digitisation of Lesotho and Swaziland’s domestic network for managed data services to enable business transactions between financial institutions, both domestically and across borders. § The installation and management of the Angolan national VSAT network between 1997 and 2000, with gradual transfer of the network to Angola’s own infrastructure over 2001. Telkom has also assisted in upgrading international telecommunications links by donating compression equipment to our trading partners. § VSAT connectivity. Our satellite hub facility is available for utilization by African telecommunication operators for their national and international VSAT-based networks. More than 20 African operators are currently using the Hub. Several carriers are now focused on the implementation of Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP). VOIP has alreadybeen implemented in international networks – several US and European carriers have been connected via a telehouse in London where VOIP gateways are installed. In addition, additional VOIP gateway equipment will be deployed within the network for a number of African operators, focusing on both established operators and new and emerging second tier GSM operations connecting into the VOIP clearing house. According to Probe Research in the United States, 44% of the global traffic will be routed over Internet Protocol by 2005. Education and training: Crucial bridges across the divide Broadening access will, by itself, not make the digital divide disappear. To really cross the divide, it is necessary to understand it as something more than just disparities in access to technology. The divide is also about pedagogy, literacy and content. The reality of the world in which we live is that Information and Communication Technology is transforming the workplace. This transformation is ongoing and rapid. To produce the knowledge workers of tomorrow, ICT must also be allowed to transform the world of education. A few years ago a lesson on global warming might have required students to read through a textbook and perhaps watch a documentary film. Today, with the help of ICT, such a lesson can be transformed from a one-way flow of information to an interactive process. Students can, for example, go on-line to search for the latest research on global warming, they can access satellite pictures that illustrate the results of global warming, use e-mail to communicate with specialists, and they can apply digital geography and weather tools to simulate the effects of global warming on the environment. Digital tools allow students to explore subjects in much greater depth. It allows them to apply information in complex ways, it teaches them to sharpen their problem-solving skills and to use information to make decisions. In short, it prepares them for the 21st century workplace. However, while everyone agrees the children of Africa and other developing countries must be plugged into the knowledge economy, there appears to be conflicting ideas on how to do it. One thing is certain, however. To achieve this new dimension in learning, more must be done than supplying computers to schools and connecting them to the Internet. To prepare students for the knowledge economy, teachers must be assisted in integrating digital tools and content into the curriculum. Teachers must also be trained to take full advantage of technology and must be as comfortable with a computer as they are with the blackboard to assist students in excelling in the digital environment. Governments cannot assume sole responsibility for such a vital task. Innovative ways will have to be found to ensure private sector participation in training teachers and providing technical support to educational institutions. Statistics show that more than 3,2 million adults in South Africa have never been to school, while many millions more are still considered either functionally illiterate or semi-illiterate. The picture in the rest of Africa is just as bleak, if not worse. This means that even if every single school and household on the continent has access to the Internet, the digital divide will persist. Unless we are able to overcome basic as well as functional illiteracy, the digital divide will not be solved. The Net may be getting more multi-media oriented, but it is still a text-driven medium. If a person does not have the skills to read and write text, he is left out. Technological literacy, the ability to, for example, use a search engine to browse the Web, is another dimension of literacy that will have to be addressed. Literacy and life long learning are irrevocably and inextricably linked together. Here again, innovative solutions will have to be found to encourage companies to provide workplace literacy and basic computer training. Establishing community technology centers, especially in low-income urban and rural areas also becomes a priority. In such a venture too, private sector participation is vital. There is a definite correlation between the value of the Internet and the value of its content. When it was conceptualised, the Internet served only those with graduate-level education. It then became available to a broader audience who could access and afford it, in other words, the better educated. As a result, much of the Internet’s content is still compiled with an educated audience in mind. People with a lower level of education may simply not have the skills to take advantage of the Net. Streaming multimedia may take care of this problem, as people will be able to visualise and listen to content instead of reading it. The problem, however, is that those communities who could truly benefit from multimedia are the least likely to have the bandwidth to use it. Streaming media takes up a lot more bandwidth than text, and for now the costs associated with bandwidth is not within the reach of such communities. Content also relates to the issues of language and culture. Research suggests that some 87% of the Net’s content is in English. This creates a huge barrier to those people whose home language is not English, or who is not that fluent in English. An online mathematics or history course designed in the United States with the average American scholar in mind, will also have little meaning for the learner in a rural school in the Northern Province of South Africa. To make content meaningful, localisation must be taken into account and participation at grassroots level to design content therefore becomes a necessity. Education and Training – Taking up the challenge Telkom, through its Foundation, is involved in a number of projects that focus on promoting the effective use of ICT within education. These range from Supercentres which aim to improve the quality of teaching and education standards through the use of ICT, to a project that has seen more than 1300 schools in under-privileged areas allocated with a personal computer, up-to-date software applications, Internet connection, monthly subscription and a rent-free telephone line for two years. The Foundation has committed R100 million over a five-year period ending in 2002, while the Company’s Strategic Equity Partner, Thintana, committed an additional R120 million over the same period to support education and training in the areas of Information and Communication Technology, science and mathematics. Conclusion The digital divide is not only Africa’s problem. It’s a global problem. Earth has become a very small planet which means everything is interlinked in a myriad, often hidden, ways. What happens in Africa will in some way affect the developed world, and with a population approaching the one billion mark, the impact will be severe. The question is, will it be a prosperous Africa or an impoverished Africa that makes its mark on the world? If it is to be a prosperous Africa, the digital divide must be eradicated while the potential of ICT must be exploited to create sustainable economic development. It will be a long and often arduous journey, but a truly worthwhile one, for at the end lies prosperity and global village citizenship for the people of Africa.

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