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August 26, 2014

Africa's Digital Divide

The idea of the “digital divide” is one that isn't exactly unfamiliar in just about any country on Earth. Some places, as a matter of course, just have better Internet access capabilities than others do; whether it's a matter of the city versus the country, or certain parts of the same region against other parts, the key takeaway is sometimes options are better in other places. But sometimes, there's such a substantial difference between the two compared regions that a “digital divide” can show up, and that increasingly seems to be the case in Africa.

Reports from the WEF Global Information Technology Report 2014, Sub-Saharan Africa, shows that Africa's information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure is on a steady climb upward in terms of development. Covering the population—both in terms of access and overall reach—with mobile access capability has been a top priority, and it shows with the total numbers of Internet users coming into play throughout the region. Reports further suggest that, in places like South Africa, the total numbers of users has nearly doubled, making this a huge development by any stretch.  With the climbing numbers of users total, the number of services available have increased as well.  Online banking and similar services are starting to enter the market, which is fueling change as well.

However, there are some clear and growing problems that come along with this. For instance, there are still plenty of areas with poor ICT infrastructure, and that which exists is expensive to access. Perhaps worse is that this isn't just the case for regular users, but also for businesses and innovation pathways, meaning that the impact—both economic and social—of what is in place has only a limited overall impact. So in order to fully address the issues of shortfall, not only does the infrastructure need to be appropriately shored up, but so too do the accompanying conditions of business and innovation in the regions so as to get the most impact out of this infrastructure.

Of course, in many cases, the idea of getting better quality ICT into the areas where it's needed—whether these areas be in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Chinese countryside, or even the rural United States—is one for the “easier said than done” stack. While wireless Internet access has made some noteworthy strides in its time, there are still plenty of issues with it like massive latency and low bandwidth availability. But by like token, the better quality connections are more expensive to put in play and operate, making development slow if even in progress. It's one thing to say that better ICT infrastructure needs to be put in place, but it's entirely another to actually do it; who's going to put in that improved ICT infrastructure when it may not generate a profit for years, if ever? Is it going to be a civil project? Will it mean more taxes? That's not a recipe to keep firms in a region, the ones that would take advantage of that improved ICT infrastructure.

This is just part of the difficulty faced by the region. The need is clear, as is the demand, but will the resources necessary to put it in play and get it running be on hand? Only time will tell just where this all ultimately goes, but one thing is clear: there's an ever-growing digital divide between the information haves and the information have-nots, and long term that may be a bigger problem than anyone expected.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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