By Lusani Mamushiane
Advanced broadband penetration is considerably low in most rural parts of South Africa. This is predominantly a result of the high cost associated with rolling out new broadband infrastructure. Operators are more comfortable to rollout network infrastructure in urban areas than in rural areas, due to the attractive return on investment promised by urban areas. The repercussion of this is a wide digital divide between urban and rural areas. COVID–19 is shining a painfully bright spotlight on South Africa’s digital divide. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the education sector has transitioned into e-learning, whereby teaching is undertaken remotely and on digital platforms. Unfortunately, e-learning is not even remotely possible for millions of unconnected learners in rural areas. This has created a huge barrier to learning.
The pandemic has also exposed the impact of the digital divide in the healthcare sector. This has accelerated the uptake of telemedicine, which replaces in-person care with virtual consultations via video chat applications, such as Zoom and Skype. Leveraging these applications, physicians can manage chronic diseases and diagnose certain diseases, without physically meeting the patients. While this virtual method of care prevents the flooding of emergency rooms beyond capacity, it is not universally accessible due to lack and/or poor broadband connectivity in most rural areas. Most companies have also resorted to telework to ensure business continuity. However, connectivity is a prerequisite for telework and, as a result, the rural workforce remains shut out due to lack of advanced broadband connectivity. Since social distancing measures were enacted, Internet connectivity is what keeps us employed, healthy and informed. Therefore, for those without Internet access, the economic, health and social impact is more tragic.
All the aforementioned issues are attributable to poor broadband penetration in rural areas. COVID-19 has availed the opportunity for us to reshape the current digital architecture to address these issues urgently. We need to redesign our telecommunication infrastructure to stimulate the expansion of broadband by network operators to rural areas. To achieve this, we need to adopt and adapt an architecture that minimises both network deployment and running costs, while maintaining a high service quality level and ensuring business agility. Studies show that a large chunk of running and deployment costs can be attributed to telecommunication equipment, and the configuration and management of said equipment. Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV) have been credited as being instrumental in building a more robust and frugal telecommunication infrastructure. SDN and NFV enable network programmability and the use of open hardware equipment, and simplify network infrastructure sharing, all of which are key cost-cutting measures for network operators. The uptake of these technologies has been hampered by factors such as skills shortage and organisational/operational problems. Most operators are not willing to forklift their legacy infrastructure and are rather on a quest for integrated hybrid solutions. Moreover, these technologies demand new skills, which are scarce in South Africa. To stimulate the adoption of these technologies, there is an urgent need for us to equip our youth with advanced digital skills, such as network virtualisation, software development, artificial intelligence and so forth.
The issues mentioned in this article are just the tip of the iceberg. The bottom line is that there is an urgent need for us to bridge the digital divide. This will definitely cost us an arm and a leg, but we cannot afford to wait. The National Broadband Policy (SA Connect) aims to achieve 100% broadband connectivity by the end of 2030. COVID-19 calls for a re-evaluation of this target date. For us to win the battle against pandemic and other pandemics in future, we need to stand in solidarity. This will require an integrated effort from industry, academia and policymakers towards bridging the divide.
Lusani Mamushiane is a telecommunications researcher working in the NextGen Enterprises and Institutions cluster of the CSIR. Her research and development work focuses on improving connectivity and networking for South Africa and Africa.