Lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be an eye-opener in terms of how far South Africa must still go to overcome the digital divide, and bring millions of citizens into the digital economy.

This is according to speakers at a webinar endorsed by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) and hosted by Nedbank, EE Business Intelligence and the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits University.

The webinar, on narrowing the digital divide to provide available and affordable Internet access for all South Africans, heard that while both the public and private sector were endeavouring to close the divide, millions of people were still unable to access the digital economy, e-government services and digital education.

The Minister of Communications and Digital Technology, Hon. Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams, said the Covid-19 lockdown had exposed serious gaps in national coverage, particularly in last mile access to rural areas and small towns.

“Covid-19 exposed us to some harsh realities,” she said. “As people migrated to rural areas during the lockdown, it exposed gaps. People may not have been able to access government services, and students could not access learning. Covid-19 has exposed us to the reality that we have not done much; we need to work together to connect the unconnected. We have to take broadband to where the people are.”

The Minister said her department was taking this into consideration as it conducted a feasibility study into SA Connect Phase 2, which is due to be completed this year.

Describing broadband as a crucial human right, the minister urged partnerships to deliver affordable, high speed access to everyone. “We call on all stakeholders to work collaboratively for the common good. None of us acting in isolation will win the battle,” she said.

Mark Harris, CEO of Altron Nexus, noted that existing penetration was lower than generally stated, since only 12% of households had access to DSL and fibre connections. “Lower income people may have 3G or 4G access,  but most can’t afford to use it; and in addition they may not have the right access devices. The total broadband numbers don’t look good, and the biggest issue is going to be around affordability.”

“Fortunately, we do have leaders in this country who keep looking at universal access. Government is trying to react as fast as they can, the technology is improving and costs are coming down. But it will take time. There is no magic bullet; the investments have to continue, and the government has to keep this focus, because we have to allow all parts of society to participate in the digital economy,” he said.

Exposing Multiple Divides

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide WorX, noted that multiple digital divides had been exposed during the lockdown: Google trends analysis showed there had been a spike in entertainment, education and video conferencing during the lockdown. “The haves were able to search for and benefit from these advantages,” he said. 

Employees who had high speed connectivity had been able to continue working from home. “Without connectivity, workers and job seekers are at the mercy of chance and circumstance – a destiny divide.”

Connectivity also enabled cloud computing, which enhances business efficiency, agility, customer service, time to marker and cost savings, among others. Entrepreneurs and businesses who do not have the skills and resources to access cloud computing find themselves on the wrong side of a competitiveness divide, according to Goldstuck.

He said in a digital awakening, when organisations embrace the digital way of work, it suddenly became possible to do everything online – from live collaboration on a document to sharing live events instantly. “The digital awakening is a necessity for all to embrace the new future, and it’s connectivity that will allow the digital awakening,” he said.

Highlighting the Needs of Learners

Dr. Lucienne Abrahams, director, Wits University’s LINK Centre, highlighted challenges in delivering digital education and preparing youths to become the 21st century workforce without adequate connectivity. “Many schools have internet access that is really ‘pretend internet’,” she said. “They don’t have good enough connectivity to participate in an online course using dynamic software. 

We have to build education streaming services, we need to be able to do live streaming and asynchronous content streaming for everything from geography and maths to music and choirs – not simply for a few pages of content online. We need to think about the transition of the nature of school. In the future, everyone in the transition from school to work will need digital skills, including basic software design skills – that is what connectivity means.”

Overcoming Constraints

Lance Williams, executive responsible for Infrastructure at the State IT Agency (SITA), said constraints in the way of progress to universal access including the economic impact of the pandemic,  a fragmented approach to conceptualising, acquiring and implementing broadband solutions, and a focus on infrastructure and technology without adequately addressing change management, capacitation, skills development and optimising underlying business processes.

Williams said limited progress had been made in addressing broadband needs in rural and deep rural areas. “We have reasonable connectivity to government sites, but we need to start focusing on addressing the last mile to villages and citizens; to close the last mile gap and ensure they have access to affordable high speed broadband infrastructure and services, as well as the necessary skills to be able to effectively utilise this infrastructure. We need to have a clear and unifying strategy, plan and vision,” he said.

 “With constrained resources, it’s more likely we will shift to shared risk models, with the government aggregating its demand to create incentives for service providers to get enabling infrastructure into deep rural areas.”