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Is "mobile-first" Africa increasing digital divide?

Is "mobile-first" Africa increasing digital divide?

The idea of Africa as a "mobile-first" continent is in vogue, with this idea born out by the fact the vast majority of Africans access the internet via the increasingly prevalent mobile phone.

But could this fact - often given as evidence for the continent's ability to leapfrog stages of development - actually be holding the continent back instead of pushing it forward. That was the view of some panelists at last week's Africa Tech Summit in Kigali.

"We hear about mobile-first Africa, it sounds sexy," said Nanjira Sambuli, digital equality advocacy manager at the World Wide Web Foundation. "But how much meaningful work can you get done through your mobile. Are we creating a divide? We are not going to be equal if mobile is the only way. Because mobile is for consuming."

This view was shared by Ben Roberts, CTO of Liquid Telecom Group, who admitted there were limitations with mobile and that rollout of fast broadband in Africa - though accelerating - was still slow.

"Mobile first is nice and it is getting people connected, but you can't do everything you want to do," he said. "There is never going to be enough spectrum for a city like Lagos to have 25 million people connecting to ultra-fast broadband at the same time. So you have to have other technology."

Liquid, like many MNOs before it, finds it difficult to justify the financial cost of rolling out fibre in rural areas, but Roberts said there were many people on the continent that live near fibre but are not connected to it. He wants more government assistance to speed up connecting people.

"Governments are particularly bad at infrastructure and making the cost of infrastructure low," he said. "The rural challenge is in the way spectrum is priced by regulators and government. When you go to rural areas there is complete white space of spectrum, it is not being used in any band, but it is being priced for the urban citizen."

Concerns over cost were shared by Erik Hersman, CEO of internet connectivity provider BRCK.

"The elephant in the china closet is that even though we are getting more infrastructure and more devices, people can't afford to pay for it," he said, adding there was an increasing prevalence of people having smartphones but not being able to afford internet.

"It is not a tech problem, it is a business model problem," he said. "The internet will be free at some point, let's come up with the business models for that now."

This view that the internet will become free in the near future may sound outlandish, but it is a policy already being pursued by Facebook through its Free Basics programme. Kojo Boakye, the company's Africa public policy manager for connectivity and access at Facebook, said freemium models were where the industry needed to be moving towards.

"By 2020 MNOs may be using freemium models and the revenue they are making will be from VAS," he said


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