The last few years has seen incredible growth in internet access for all South Africans. From high speed fibre in the Sandton suburbs to 4G access in rural KZN, more South Africans can connect at faster speeds than we could have hoped.
But there’s still a long way to go if we’re to reap the full benefits of the internet in township economies. Having internet access available isn’t enough: more work must be done to make it faster, more reliable and lower cost.
The National Broadband Policy – also known as SA Connect – is very clear about the strategy that the country should take. Connecting public buildings – schools, clinics, government departments – should provide the nodes from which last mile access can run.
Butiki Shabangu, Business Development Executive at Ansys’ Digital Network Solutions says that in peri-urban areas, many townships are within reach of fast fibre backbones. In Gauteng, for example, the first phases of connecting core nodes is complete.
It’s the last mile of connectivity that will be the challenge.
“At the moment we think of the last mile as being wireless,” Shabangu says, “But we still need more fibre in the ground to support the wireless networks, there’s not enough bandwidth yet to support hungry applications like paperless classrooms in schools, for example.
“Better connectivity can make healthcare more efficient too,” Shabangu continues. “Many files kept in local clinics are still kept on paper and are old and outdated. If information could be centralised, the provision of healthcare could be made much more efficient. There’s a huge amount of fraud in prescription medicines too, which can be tackled via digital processes.”
Where big investments have been made, such as the free WiFi network in Tshwane, some of the benefits are starting to materialise. People are more aware of the opportunities in digital, and government is better able to engage citizens with online services. But there’s much skill development to be done.
“We’ll only get connectivity and skills through a combination of both public and private effort,” Shabangu says, “Government needs to create an enabling environment for the private sector to come in and deliver solutions.”
The potential, Shabangu says, is enormous. With the right connectivity, CSI programmes aimed at developing township entrepreneurs and training interns with digital tools that will spur development and help to tackle unemployment. One less explored opportunity, though, is providing an environment to stop the “brain drain”. At the moment, talented youngsters go through university and gain skills, but are unable to return to practise those skills and generate economic activity.
“We need to incentivise those kids to come back and develop communities,” Shabangu says, “And provide them with the connectivity to do that.”