Charmaine Houvet, public policy director: Africa, Cisco Systems
Charmaine Houvet, public policy director: Africa, Cisco Systems

How to bridge the digital divide gap - Part 2

By Tamara Mafilika Time of article published Aug 19, 2021

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Former American president Barack Obama once said this during an announcement of ConnectHome, “The internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”

The digital divide refers to the gap between those who have access to technology (including computers and the internet) and those who don’t. Economic and social inequality limit digital equality. In South Africa, race, income, age, and level of education compared to levels of internet adoption prove that this divide exists.

Charmaine Houvet, public policy director: Africa, Cisco Systems further expands on this topic, on how companies can bridge the digital divide gap.

  • How does connectivity help with bridging the gap for those who are underserved and don't have basic access?

As we have seen over this last two years, internet connection has become one of the sole factors that determine essential access to healthcare, education, and social services.

South Africa still has a long way to go with only 10% of South Africans having computers at home and a further 16% that still lack electricity in their homes; while the rest of the country battles with regular load shedding.

In nearly every country, the digital divide affects rural communities and the poor disproportionately. Even in advanced economies we see that not all children have access to a device they can use for home schooling and not everyone has a safe or suitable home environment for study.

Bringing the internet to those who are offline would lift 500 million people out of poverty worldwide. Increasing our global connectivity is an essential element to building greater inclusivity.

Next generation of wireless technologies —including 5G and wi-fi 6 — can go a long way toward closing the divide. Mobile connectivity is also important, and we need to facilitate the transitions to 5G and wi-fi 6 through smart spectrum policy.

Those without the right connectivity, digital infrastructure, and remote work technologies are left behind – whether it be their ability to continue education, access to healthcare, ability to keep a job, or run their business fully online. Creating and granting broader access to technology will enable both undeveloped and mature healthcare and social-care systems to keep their populations healthy.

  • With many still without internet access due to infrastructure, what can organisations and governments do to bring the"Future of the Internet“ to everybody?

We need to look at changing the economics of how we build the infrastructure of the internet and overcome some of its current performance and power consumption limitations.

Commitment from the government is critical to connect the unconnected while also providing support to businesses, schools, hospitals and other organisations working to enhance their own digital capabilities.

Cisco recently announced a strategy to help network operators to grow and extend the internet to more areas, regardless of geographic limitations, creating what could be seen as the Internet for the Future.

For instance, during level 5 lockdown we worked Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital to ensure that doctors could be able to remote diagnose and see patients.

Due to the pandemic, distance education became the norm for Networking Academy students as well. Cisco made its Webex Collaboration platform available for all Networking Academy instructors and students. By using Webex, teachers have continued to deliver lectures to students virtually, so that learning never stops. Since inception in 2019 to date in Africa we have 207 200 students enrolled of which 85 355 is based in South Africa and 31% are female.

During the lockdown there was collaboration to assist students to get access to the internet, and we came together to enable connectivity and to see how we can help our citizens.

Now is the time for critical public-private co-ordination. Working hand in hand with governments, we each have a role to play in using our resources for the greater good to protect our most vulnerable communities.

  • Internet for the future - faster, simpler - irrespective of access technology, what are the perceived challenges today?

Cisco’s Internet for the Future is developed to address these alarming gaps. This includes cultivating partnerships across businesses, governments, and institutions with strong commitments to make the internet more broadly accessible.

In Africa, for example, only the wealthiest 20% of South Africans can afford basic internet access. For the poorest 60% of South Africans, basic access costs between 6% and 21% of their monthly earnings. This is where collaboration is needed to close this divide. However, we are limited by a number of challenges as listed below:

  • We don’t have smart and enabling policies and we do not really address duplication and fragmentation. The different players in the sector need to play a role to change this current situation.
  • South Africa battles load shedding which also creates a barrier for efficient technology usage. There is also challenges of accessibility to devices and technology in schools, which is mostly due to affordability.

By reducing the price of data, demolition of the barriers to entry in underserved communities - more schools in impoverished communities will bring us close tothe goal of accessibility for all.

We need to increase connectivity for a wider audience, and expose more people to coding, hackathons and technology experts. We also have an opportunity to train many more South Africans, which is something Cisco has also been focusing on.

We  must remove these barriers now or face a world where students are unable to acquire the skills needed to join the workforce; individuals are unable to obtain or maintain jobs; seniors or those with disabilities are unable to get remote healthcare support; and small businesses are unable to expand their services to meet the changes in customers’ needs.

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