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Regulatory skill key to improved rural connectivity

Regulatory skill key to improved rural connectivity

The concern raised by some government leaders that the roll-out of the best experience in mobile and internet technology in urban areas across Africa leaves rural communities behind ignores the role of the government and its own agencies in ensuring greater inclusion according to industry analysts.

Dr Win Mlambo, Deputy Minister of Information Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services in Zimbabwe told the 14th World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Symposium (WTIS) in Botswana late last month that "this open chasm we seem to see that is not closing needs a deliberate intervention by the international community of 54 billion dollars so that we close the gap. Right now those who have technology are running away and they are going to 5G while we in poor areas only have 2G. Out of the 2 234 base stations in Zimbabwe only four are LTE. This is while others are going for 5G. We are being left behind."

Dr Mlambo's view followed similar comments by Mr Dumisani Ndlangamandla, Minister of Information, Communication and Technology in Swaziland who told the same conference that Swaziland wants to have broadband connectivity throughout the country in order to move forward, although this is proving to be hard to achieve.

Arthur Goldstuck, ICT industry analyst and head of World Wide Worx says government should not underestimate its role in ensuring that rural communities catch up with urban centres when it comes to high-speed and high-quality Internet connections.

"It is more economically feasible first to invest heavily in better urban connectivity, where there is greater density of users and more revenue to be generated, and then to use that benefit to invest further in rural areas. It is ideal that all areas evolve at the same pace, but it is rarely practical unless government is subsidising the roll-out."

Goldstuck believes it is possible to find a balance between giving the best user experience for those in more developed areas while ensuring that far-flung parts are not forgotten.

"The licensing obligations for operators should include certain minimum standards for all areas, and for ongoing investment in rural areas. Part of the reason operators are given their licenses is to meet national needs, and these high-speed and high-quality internet connections include the needs of the rural and the economically disadvantaged. Unless government funds it, it is improbable and impractical to have the same levels of connectivity in all areas. In particular, major business areas should have preference due to their contribution to the economy. The balance that must be struck, however, is that investment must still be made in less profitable areas, even if not at the same pace. The moment operators stop improving rural connectivity and ignore the poorer areas, they are violating a moral obligation as well as ignoring the national need."

Dominic Cull regulatory advisor at South Africa's Internet Service Providers' Association echoed Goldstuck's view that licensing should be done more deftly in order for rural communities to share in the latest advancements.

Cull agrees that mobile network operators won't support connectivity in rural communities unless there is government intervention or incentivisation or a universal service obligation which is imposed upon them to ensure that the latest versions of technology are also spread to rural areas

"That is the challenge and some governments have identified that there is a role to play in addressing that challenge because we need to close that divide and make sure that we are empowering people outside the major cities because otherwise it creates a greater gap - not just in terms of access, but in terms of wealth, skills, education etc. and that will create further social problems over time."

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) revealed that while 84% of the world's population is covered by mobile broadband network, only 67% of this is in rural areas.

The UN agency's Measuring the Information Society Report 2016 also shows that mobile broadband remains cheaper and more widely available than fixed-broadband globally although mobile broadband services are only available in 38% of the 'Least Developed Countries' of whom the majority are in Africa.

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