The lockdown proved to be an eye-opener in terms of how far South Africa must still go to overcome the digital divide, and bring millions of citizens into the digital economy.

This is according to speakers at a webinar endorsed by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA), on narrowing the digital divide to provide available and affordable Internet access for all South Africans.

Delegates heard that, while both the public and private sector were endeavouring to close the divide, millions of people were still unable to access the digital economy, e-government services and digital education.

Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, minister of communications and digital technology, says the Covid-19 lockdown had exposed serious gaps in national coverage, particularly in last mile access to rural areas and small towns.

“Covid-19 exposed us to some harsh realities,” she says. “As people migrated to rural areas during the lockdown, it exposed gaps. People may not have been able to access government services, and students could not access learning.

“Covid-19 has exposed us to the reality that we have not done much; we need to work together to connect the unconnected. We have to take broadband to where the people are.”

The Minister says her department is taking this into consideration as it conducts a feasibility study into SA Connect Phase 2, which is due to be completed this year.

Describing broadband as a crucial human right, the minister urged partnerships to deliver affordable, high-speed access to everyone. “We call on all stakeholders to work collaboratively for the common good. None of us acting in isolation will win the battle,” she says.

Mark Harris, CEO of Altron Nexus, notes that existing penetration is lower than generally stated, since only 12% of households had access to DSL and fibre connections.

“Lower income people may have 3G or 4G access, but most can’t afford to use it; and in addition they may not have the right access devices. The total broadband numbers don’t look good, and the biggest issue is going to be around affordability.

“Fortunately, we do have leaders in this country who keep looking at universal access,” he adds. “Government is trying to react as fast as they can, the technology is improving and costs are coming down.

“But it will take time. There is no magic bullet; the investments have to continue, and the government has to keep this focus, because we have to allow all parts of society to participate in the digital economy.”

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide WorX, notes that multiple digital divides had been exposed during the lockdown. “Google trends analysis showed there had been a spike in entertainment, education and video conferencing during the lockdown. “The haves were able to search for and benefit from these advantages,” he says.

Employees who have high speed connectivity have been able to continue working from home. “Without connectivity, workers and job seekers are at the mercy of chance and circumstance – a destiny divide.”

Connectivity also enables cloud computing, which enhances business efficiency, agility, customer service, time to market and cost savings, among others.

Entrepreneurs and businesses who do not have the skills and resources to access cloud computing find themselves on the wrong side of a competitiveness divide, Goldstuck says.

He points out that, in a digital awakening, when organisations embrace the digital way of work, it suddenly became possible to do everything online – from live collaboration on a document to sharing live events instantly.

“The digital awakening is a necessity for all to embrace the new future, and it’s connectivity that will allow the digital awakening,” he says.

Dr Lucienne Abrahams, director, Wits University’s Link Centre, highlights come of the challenges in delivering digital education and preparing youths to become the 21st century workforce without adequate connectivity.

“Many schools have internet access that is really ‘pretend internet’,” she says. “They don’t have good enough connectivity to participate in an online course using dynamic software.

“We have to build education streaming services, we need to be able to do live streaming and asynchronous content streaming for everything from geography and maths to music and choirs – not simply for a few pages of content online.

“We need to think about the transition of the nature of school. In the future, everyone in the transition from school to work will need digital skills, including basic software design skills – that is what connectivity means.”

Lance Williams, executive responsible for infrastructure at the State IT Agency (SITA), says constraints in the way of progress to universal access including the economic impact of the pandemic, a fragmented approach to conceptualising, acquiring and implementing broadband solutions, and a focus on infrastructure and technology without adequately addressing change management, capacitation, skills development and optimising underlying business processes.

He says that limited progress has been made in addressing broadband needs in rural and deep rural areas.

“We have reasonable connectivity to government sites, but we need to start focusing on addressing the last mile to villages and citizens; to close the last mile gap and ensure they have access to affordable high speed broadband infrastructure and services, as well as the necessary skills to be able to effectively utilise this infrastructure.

“We need to have a clear and unifying strategy, plan and vision,” he explains.

“With constrained resources, it’s more likely we will shift to shared risk models, with the government aggregating its demand to create incentives for service providers to get enabling infrastructure into deep rural areas.”