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BIG QUESTION

Who will benefit if we make internet access a reality for everyone in Africa?

AP Photo/Armando Franca
Global tech giants are in a race to get Africans online
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Six hours yesterday without Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram was enough to remind the world just how important it is for us to be online and use social media. Facebook’s stock plunged 5% with almost $50 billion wiped off its value. Given just how important the Internet and social media is for most of us reading this story and also for our economies, it can come as a shock to learn that nearly half of the world’s population—about 3.7 billion people—have never used the Internet.

Attention is shifting to these arid stretches of the planet where the Internet has never quite blossomed. At the recently concluded 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), secretary-general António Guterres spotlighted the digital divide among the world’s six great divides—or “grand canyons”—elevating its prominence alongside universal priorities such as climate action and COVID-19 vaccine equity.

The UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates sub-Saharan Africa is home to approximately 700 million of the world’s 3.7 billion unconnected people. According to their Connecting Humanity study, internet access can be made a reality for all of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) by 2030 with investments of nearly $97 billion in the region.

While many are jockeying to get on board this vision, the journey toward a connected continent raises a host of regulatory and governance questions for African policymakers.

The key questions to be addressed include: Whether companies that connect Africa’s unconnected 700+ million will ensure net neutrality? Who will capture the value of data obtained from African users? How will competing geopolitical ambitions playout as multinationals scale operations locally? Will internet freedom normalize, given the increased role of technology companies in the ecosystem? And finally how will the venture to get Africans online be affordable and profitable?

Net neutrality

Flashback to 2004, when the EU Commission declared an abusive practice because a market-dominating company refused to provide its competitors with the information necessary for their rival products to “interoperate” with its dominant market product. Fast forward to today, will companies that connect Africa’s unconnected 700+ million ensure non-discrimination toward their internet providing competitors apps, sites, or services.

Today, African countries lack specific laws on net neutrality, unlike European countries which have advanced legislation on net neutrality. Legislators and regulators on the continent can reduce the scope for legal disputes and online disharmony with settled law.

Data

As foreign players strive toward connecting Africa, who will capture the value from the data of Africa’s 700+ million, yet to come online? Data–the world’s most valuable resource–unlike crude oil is made by humans and “non-rivalrous” (so everyone can benefit.) African governments and citizens must realize the “shared value” from the resulting data insights and defy projected data divides set to overwhelmingly benefit two economic superpowers.

To benefit from data sharing, policymakers must normalize approaches where African government agencies, indigenous companies, NGOs, and universities can harness data for development objectives, while protecting privacy. Companies, local and foreign, can advise governments on how to keep data owned by customers, and derive value from willfully volunteered data.

Geopolitical ambitions

A continent reliant on foreign technology must consider how competing geopolitical ambitions may playout as multinationals scale operations locally? During elections across Africa, will citizens scrutinize their digital information and recognize geopolitically-motivated agendas? In developing democracies especially, we can imagine incumbents taking a lenient approach to policing online misinformation, where it only harms their political opposition.

Will the Internet privacy, security, and safety standards that foreign companies are subject to in their home countries apply (or improve) in Africa? No actor can assume African citizens will compromise on their privacy rights and welcome mass digital surveillance because they are desperate to get connected.

Internet freedom and emerging rights

Mirroring the reality around the world, Africans experience varying levels of internet freedom. As Africa-bound subsea cables develop roots in locations prone to internet shutdowns, we need to know whether a Twitter shut down would be feasible if Twitter (hypothetically) acted as an internet provider in the country?

These internet governance questions are now married to questions about digital rights. If Twitter is how citizens receive “data in response to health or other emergencies,” shutdowns and censorship would essentially breach a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council adopted this summer. Diplomatic interventions may become more commonplace as governance and human rights witness more interplay online.

Affordability and profitability

From the myriad regulations to the innovations along the way, there are no guarantees of a smooth journey to connect all Africans to the broadband value chain. Google’s Loon, connected remote regions with high-altitude air balloons. In 2020, Loon partnered with Telkom Kenya to provide a 4G LTE network to over 30,000 square miles. However, by February 2021, Google brought down all its balloons, with experts observing that rural populations struggled to afford 4G compatible phones, and setting costs low enough proved untenable.

Investors in Africa’s connectivity journey are addressing two main unconnected groups: those with a coverage gap and those with a usage gap.  The “uncovered” group does not live in an area served by a mobile broadband network—the primary way users access the Internet in Africa. The mobile internet coverage gap in sub-Saharan Africa is 25% or 270 million people.

People experiencing the coverage gap tend to live in remote or rural areas. For these populations, the capex outlay for internet-providing infrastructure proves exorbitant for most investors. (Laying fiber-optic cables—the conventional gold standard in broadband service—can cost US$30,000 per mile.)

The second group falls into the usage gap. The ‘covered but not connected’ group lives within the service footprint of a mobile broadband network but is not using mobile internet services. Affordability is a common obstacle. In sub-Saharan Africa, the mobile internet usage gap is at 49%.

Ongoing investments in African subsea cables are pivotal for bringing the Internet into any country—the first mile. Such reliable “backhaul infrastructure” positions mobile operators to expand data capacity, reduce network costs, and improve performance. But solving the coverage and usage gaps requires us to invest in the middle, last, and invisible miles – if we are to get the Internet from where it enters the country to those who do not have it.

From Norway and Denmark to the UAE, the world’s highest internet penetration rates are correlated with economic progress. Making internet a reality for all promises to benefit virtually everyone on the continent. Will the benefits be distributed evenly? Beneficial outcomes are equally not guaranteed, considering stakeholders will not evenly share the work of taking Africa online.

Sharing the benefits more equitably rests on African governments setting a path for data sharing, informed consent, and healthy synergy. Taking Africa online is a calling larger than its opportunity cost. African citizens must experience the options, gains, awareness, and rights enjoyed in the most advanced countries.

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