The internet has changed our lives. Today, in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of students have to study online, while workers whose jobs can be done remotely through the internet have taken to working from home. This “new normal”, as some are calling it, finds expression in the ways in which we are adapting our way of life to our current circumstances.
As we commemorate World Telecommunication and Information Society Day on 17 May, we remember that where we are now in terms of how we communicate is truly remarkable when you consider the day’s humble beginnings. This day dates back to the signing of the First International Telegraph Convention on 17 May 1865, which marked the establishment of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Today, short text messages – updated and endless versions of the telegram – dominate our means of communication.
Communication is a basic human need, and the internet has connected and disconnected us with and from each other in many ways. Estonia was one of the first countries to describe access to the internet as a human right, in 2001. Today, we can see the importance of access to the internet and how communication technologies are helping to plug all types of communities directly into the economy through e-commerce. But e-commerce in Africa is not anywhere near the scale of the western world’s e-economy. This is in part due to logistical problems, the geographic spacing of rural areas, and a lack of physical infrastructure like quality roads and transport systems to ensure efficiency. This growing digital divide is exacerbated by the inequality in our society, and needs to be addressed where the playing fields are levelled in terms of access. The internet has in theory democratised many things, including information access, but there are structural and economic barriers in place which hamper access for some people. These barriers mirror the class, race and socio-economic hurdles we face as a society.
In Africa, we’ve been known to leapfrog technologies to bridge our digital divide. Mobile-first is an oft-repeated mantra because it is easier for people in Africa to be connected via their phones rather than via a laptop or desktop computer. However, internet access remains a challenge across the continent. In South Africa, data providers have been accused of exorbitant data bundle pricing when compared to other countries. This has proved to be a notable setback for many students at tertiary institutions, who either don’t have sufficient funds for data or do not have access to an internet-enabled device which would allow them to work from home and keep up with their class work. The digital divide here again sees poorer students disadvantaged by a cost structure that makes bigger data bundles progressively cheaper by the gigabyte. Poorer students who do not have larger amounts of disposable income can only buy smaller and more expensive bundles. This further disadvantages many poor, first-generation students who view formal tertiary education as a way out of poverty for their family and broader community.
However, in keeping with the social compact and social justice, more data providers have come to the table during the various crises generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked closely with universities to help make access more equitable by not charging data fees for the microsites where learning and research content will be placed. This has helped considerably to lower the burden in terms of the financial impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning, especially in lower-income households. At the University of Pretoria we’ve worked around the clock to get laptops to as many students as possible who needed them over the course of the past few weeks. Our hope is to ensure that the academic year can now proceed with minimal setbacks.
This day is meant to help raise awareness of the opportunities that the use of the internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) can bring to societies and economies, as well as to bridge the digital divide. However, the events of the past few weeks have further highlighted the digital divide that still exists in our country. While great progress has been made and most people in South Africa have access to phones that have WhatsApp, there are still many who do not have smartphones or access to an internet connection. Much of the information they receive through WhatsApp might be hearsay or even fake news relating to COVID-19, a problem exacerbated by their lack of access to data for broader enquiry and to strengthen their ability to apply their own critical media literacies to be able to distinguish fake information from genuine information.
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the importance of ICT in national development. We are living through a very stressful and trying time; practising social distancing and obeying the rules of the lockdown makes us feel very much apart. But at the same time, access to the internet has helped us find new ways of connecting with each other for emotional support as well as the sharing of information and knowledge.
From the telegram to texts and Twitter posts, from newspapers to Netflix and YouTube, we’re now all connected, in various ways, for most of our day. While ICT is not where we would like it to be in our country, let us take a moment to reflect on how far we have come, and be encouraged to take an active role towards driving the global Connect 2030 Agenda in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. As a society we – and specifically our decision-makers – need to be proactive, future-oriented and put in place a communications policy and the necessary regulatory frameworks which prioritise affordable infrastructure for access and lowering the cost of data. We need to enable the release of spectrum necessary to expand e-commerce, encourage competition, and improve internet density. I urge businesses, industry players and academic institutions to continue to innovate and find solutions that will enable us to drive human progress and to bridge the digital divide in the future.
Professor Tawana Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria. He is a professor of Media Studies and Literature.