The global pandemic, widely touted as a disruption event catapulting the world into a digital future, held a magnifying glass over the inequality fault lines in our society and in many instances made them worse. There will be no digital future for the majority of South Africans unless we build bridges, and fast.
This country is no stranger to separation between the haves and have-nots, which is why there should be absolute urgency to bridge the digital divide. Digital inequality will result in a society where some will continue to have access to a world at their fingertips, while the rest will be excluded.
For SA to reach its development potential, for millions of talented young people to become active participants in the new world, digital inclusion must be a priority.
There is no way around it – connectivity enables communities to enjoy economic growth. Perhaps the best analogy is imagining two parallel worlds: one world is connected, packed with information, fast, innovative, and competitive, while the other hasn’t bought a ticket and can only watch as the train leaves the station: it is uncompetitive and has far more restricted access to information, which carries a cost premium due to its limited supply.
Which one would choose to live in? The one where your child can learn from anywhere, be exposed to the latest and greatest, and be confident enough to do business with anyone, anywhere? Or the world where your child is limited to ad-hoc connectivity, and will look for scarce jobs of any shape or form, limited by where they live and where they come from?
Most children in this country live in the second world, and that must change. Opportunity shouldn’t be a dream; it should be a reality. Connectivity shouldn’t be a privilege.
Digital access should be a leveller. During the hard lockdowns, schools closed, and millions of children were sent home. As painful as it is to acknowledge, the children of wealthier parents were able to switch to online learning fairly easily. Sure, it was an adjustment, but by and large they were connected to the internet, and interacted with teachers who also had the right tools to stay connected to stable, fast internet.
Many more went home without any of these resources. Their schools and teachers were unable to beam education into the homes of equally talented children. Here we are, in 2021, perpetuating a legacy of inequality.
The only way the digital divide will be narrowed is by taking practical steps to facilitate more people connecting to the internet. This is why Cell C has been championing its Network Strategy – to give its customers access to a quality, stable network at the best prices and value offers.
The company contends that the network becomes invisible to the customer when there is quality connectivity. Then, the primary interest shifts to value offers and quality of service they receive.
Finally, there needs to be access to the internet. Some of the biggest obstacles to broad connectivity have been a lack of area infrastructure, cost to the consumer, and contracts – which have tended to drive exclusion and are just not appropriate for price-sensitive customers such as irregular workers, grandmothers, single parents, or university students.
Products need to provide an entry to the digital world for people previously excluded – they should provide good speed, be priced reasonably and fairly, and should not tie users into long-term contracts or exclude them if they don’t qualify.
in the effort to deliver reliable connectivity, a good broadband LTE service provides a reliable substitute for fixed connectivity such as fibre.
To change our world, we need practical solutions to immense challenges. Poverty, unemployment, and inequality won’t necessarily be solved by providing an internet connection, but the door will be opened, and behind that door lies education, information and resources that are currently only the preserve of the privileged.
• Mkhize is chief commercial officer at Cell C