BY Wesley Diphoko 3 MINUTE READ

Leaders in the telecommunications sector gathered in Cape Town last week for the AfricaCom event to talk about all things connectivity. The gathering is considered the largest digital infrastructure event in Africa focusing on connecting the next billion people. They deliberated about the future of communications and what it will mean for Africans to be connected. One session focused on what it takes to connect the unconnected where the Chief Commercial Officer, Phinda Dube, at Open Serve, remarked “to connect the unconnected you need more than just tech”.

Phila Dube, Open Serve

If this is true, what are the non-tech tools required to connect the unconnected?. The assumption has always been that to solve the digital divide challenge you only need wires and hardware, many however are beginning to appreciate the value of non-tech elements. They include simple things like regulation, digital literacy, digital adoption, community engagement and trust. The challenges faced by telecommunications companies in the efforts to install fibre has led to this realisation. Multitude of bylaws are contributing to headaches experienced by companies in the race to connect the world. It’s no longer enough to have just the infrastructure. Once regulations are taken care of the reality on the ground becomes an on-going challenge. This includes dealing with criminal elements that are behind cable theft and lately the extortionist challenge. Overcoming this security and safety challenge is something that was not factored in technology implementation projects. When the technical infrastructure challenge is addressed another challenge rears its head. This one relates to the usage of the network infrastructure. It’s one thing to install the network infrastructure, ensuring that the community makes use of it is completely something else. To overcome some of these challenges telecom companies need non-tech solutions.

Regulators need to become aware of the unnecessary hurdles that delay the process of deploying infrastructure. At the same time, telecom companies need to build strong relationships with communities where they deploy technology infrastructure. Important and simple things like getting consent from householders and engaging with community leaders is key. More importantly there’s a need to create digital awareness in communities. Such awareness should highlight the value of connectivity within a community. At some point network infrastructure should be seen in the same light as road and electricity infrastructure. In the absence of these amenities the community is rendered dysfunctional. Telecom companies need to find ways of assisting communities to have greater appreciation of these tools. Part of this may include appointing community liaison officials and ambassadors who can continually engage with the community. This is an intervention that is required before and after network infrastructure has been deployed in the community. Leading telecom companies are spending a fortune on replacing stolen infrastructure. This can be prevented if communities are involved in the process of protecting this connectivity infrastructure.

There’s a need for a sense of urgency about connecting the unconnected. The tech is ready and available to connect most citizens. Sadly, the delay is caused by non-tech factors.

This challenge presents an opportunity to assign young people to become champions of connectivity in communities. They need to be trained and assigned before the digging and rollout of fibre in communities. They need to be there to prepare communities and stick around after installation. This challenge also presents an opportunity to develop an economic model that would benefit the user community. A community that is a shareholder in the business behind its own network infrastructure has every reason to protect it.These are just some of the ways that can be used to speed up network infrastructure deployment in South Africa.