National Broadband Plans (NBPs) have formed key components of the development agenda in many African countries. Such plans aim to provide citizens with affordable and reliable internet access, thereby driving economic growth, innovation, and improved quality of life. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) DataHub, by 2020, 29 out of the 54 (that is approximately 54%) countries in Africa had a National Broadband Plan (NBP). Despite this progress, the challenge of limited internet penetration in Africa persists. The ITU further indicates that only 40% of the population of Africa had access to the Internet as of 2022. This article delves into the root cause of the issue while proposing potential solutions to address the lack of Internet access by the majority of the population in Africa.
Lack of Investment:
One of the primary challenges to expanding internet access in Africa is the lack of investment in telecommunications infrastructure. Building the necessary infrastructure for broadband coverage requires substantial financial resources. Inadequate investment in infrastructure such as fiber-optic cables, cell towers, and data centers remains a significant barrier to internet penetration in many African countries. Encouraging private sector investments through favorable policies and providing incentives can help bridge this gap and stimulate the expansion of Internet services.
Poor Policy Implementation and Digital Authoritarianism:
Although some African countries have formulated comprehensive national broadband plans, poor policy implementation hinders their success. Bureaucratic red tape, corruption, and weak governance structures often delay the execution of these plans. The rise of digital authoritarianism, where governments restrict internet access or control online content, further limits internet penetration. Ensuring transparent and accountable governance, promoting digital rights, and fostering an environment conducive to innovation are crucial in addressing these issues.
Absence of Homegrown Alternatives:
Africa’s reliance on foreign companies for internet infrastructure and services limits its ability to shape its digital future. Building and promoting homegrown alternatives, such as local tech startups and content providers, who will drive the goals and objectives of the National Broadband plans can bolster internet penetration. Supporting entrepreneurship, providing access to capital, and nurturing a vibrant tech ecosystem can enable African nations to develop innovative solutions tailored to their specific needs and challenges.
Non-Funding and Misuse of the Universal Service Fund:
The Universal Service Fund (USF) is intended to facilitate the expansion of telecommunication services to underserved areas. However, the USF is underutilized or misused in many African countries. Lack of proper management, accountability, and transparency in allocating funds hinders effective implementation of broadband projects. It is important to establish stringent oversight mechanisms, ensure funds are allocated to deserving projects, and monitor their progress to optimize the impact of the USF.
Internet access remains unaffordable to a significant portion of Africa’s population. High data costs, limited competition among internet service providers, and the absence of effective regulatory frameworks contribute to this affordability challenge. Governments can promote healthy competition, encourage investment in infrastructure, and establish regulatory mechanisms to ensure fair pricing and affordable access to the Internet. Additionally, initiatives such as public Wi-Fi hotspots and community networks can play a pivotal role in bridging the affordability gap, particularly in rural and underserved areas.
As we celebrate World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) under the theme, “Empowering the least developed countries through information and communication technologies,” Africa can overcome this challenge by; addressing the lack of investment, improving affordability, and fostering collaboration and partnerships. Countries across the continent can also explore alternative connectivity solutions, utilize universal service funds effectively, and implement inclusive policies. It is important to consider the Internet, which is a major Information and communication technology, as a critical national infrastructure and work collectively to bridge the digital divide. This will ensure all citizens can benefit from the opportunities and transformative power of the digital age that the Internet provides.
The writer is a Senior Program Officer at Paradigm Initiative.