Kathy Gibson at ITU Telecom World in Durban – The fourth industrial revolution is fast becoming reality in an increasingly-digitised world. But the digital divide is still a reality, and a danger that needs to be guarded against.

The divide is no longer simply between emerging economies and the rest of the world: Africa on the whole is rapidly adopting new technologies and deploying networks as good as any in the world. Instead, a new gap between well-serviced urban centres and under-serviced or completely unconnected rural areas is creating a new digital and economic divide.

Professor Darelle van Greunen, director of the Centre for Community Technologies and professor School of ICT at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Centre for Community Technologies, points out that most of the issues at stake are to do with poverty and unemployment.

“A massive 21,5% of people live under the poverty line – and most of them are black African women,” she points out. “This means economic growth has faltered badly.”

While there are any number of technologies available that can change the way society and the economy operate, many of these fail to reach the very people who need them most.

“We have a lot of disruptive innovation that disrupts the traditional economy, and are starting to build innovation in mobile technology,” Prof van Greunen says.

“So we are having to step back and look at how we use technologies like mobility, data analytics, social media and IoT to impact the economic gap.”

Alison Gillwald, executive director of Research ICT Africa, agrees that ways need to be found to drive up Internet use in Africa, and that social media might offer a solution.

“It is the social network that is driving uptake, and what people are doing with social media is reducing costs. For instance, Whatsapp is saving money on voice calls.

“These developments are positive, pro-poor outcomes.”

She adds that a discussion about just connectivity, while useful, fails to address the whole challenge. “We need to discuss ways of doing things differently.

“Clearly the models we have, and the way we do things, are pushing up prices with no clear success metrics.

“We don’t know what progress we are making towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), because we don’t have the data.”

In Africa, Internet penetration is less than 20% of the population, although it is about 50% in South Africa.

“But our ability to leverage a lot of the applications is restricted by the high cost of devices and of services,” Gillwald explains. “So even if costs are effectively regulated, the cost of the model is too high.

“We have to approach things more dynamically.”

She recommends adopting a hybrid policy and regulatory model that balances spectrum to bring down costs in rural areas.

“All of the instruments we use now are old siloed approaches to things. But if we are trying to address digital goals they won’t work.”

Paul Scanlan, president of business and network consulting at Huawei Technologies, believes that Africa’s challenges can be overcome.

“In the early 1990s we connected all the university campuses in northern Queensland (Australia). Now we are discussing the same challenges in Africa.”

This connectivity is vital for the continent to keep up, he says. “If people are not connected, they can’t do anything else.”

Universal connectivity can have a dramatic and positive effect on people, he adds. “Look at China: you don’t need anything other than a mobile phone.”

Even industries like mining and manufacturing can benefit from connectivity, Scanlan says. For instance, instead of importing parts or components from overseas, or even another area in the same country, they could be 3D-printed onsite to plans downloaded from the Internet.

“Huawei believes there is a need to connect everyone and everything – and the right technology for Africa is 4G. It is more efficient, and power is valuable.

“What everyone wants is jobs, food, education and health: so, once we have connected everyone, how do we get jobs to people?

“The connectivity provides a technology platform that allows companies to take innovation to the market. So we need to help the operators in the countries; and we need the skills of the big countries to help the smaller ones.”

That said, Scanlan believes there is a wealth of innovation coming out of Africa. “We are always on the lookout for innovations that will be transformative. And the good news is that Africa is leapfrogging the rest of the world.”

What’s still missing in the bid to connect Africa is affordable devices, he adds. “The challenges is to get the right technology to the people. Even the cheapest handsets are $35.00 or $40.00 – that’s still too expensive for many people.

“Base stations also need to be deployed more cost-effectively.

“The challenge is to think differently. Vendors was to sell products, and governments want to make money – but we have to think of different ways to do that. Rather than erecting barriers for rural solutions, we need to make sure they are enabled.

“It sounds simple, but until we can combine all the interests and make sure we are all working to the same goals it will be unattainable.”

The solution, says Scanlan, lies in having the right regulatory framework, the right sites for base stations, and handsets available at the right price.

“There are many obstacles, but we are working on addressing them all,” he says.

Rene Arnold, head of department: markets and perspectives at German thinktank WIK, points out that deployments in Brazil and India has shown the value of rich interactive applications to users.

“They can help people to achieve tasks more easily, more conveniently and more timeously.”

Industry 4.0 and digitalisation is important for emerging economies, he adds. “They can help to solve many other challenges in terms of logistics, certification and access to the right software architectures.

“If we don’t do these things, the divide will widen rather than close. Emerging markets need to embrace disruption, technology and over-the-top application rather than avoiding them or introducing protectionist policies.”

Governments should be leading the way, says Samia Melhem, lead policy specialist: transport and ICT global lead, digital development CoP at the World Bank.

“Governments need to digitise and do it quickly. If you can roll out content to 50 schools, why not 5 000 or 50 000? There could be a lot of quick wins and better ways to improve service delivery.”