Why we need to bridge digital divide

In today's interconnected world, a digital divide still exists.  

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The Internet continues to be one of the most important tools in human history.

Over the years, it has grown to become an important part of our day-to-day lives in communication, media, entertainment, health, education and commerce, among others.

Whenever there are discussions about the Internet, those focusing on digital technology come in too because of the relationship and significant intersection between the two.

While the Internet is a global network of interconnected devices that communicate with one another using a standardised protocol, digital technology incorporates digital electronics such as computers, tablets and mobile devices, which store, process and transmit data.

The Internet is the cornerstone of digital technology as it provides the necessary foundation for digital communication, collaboration and information sharing.

Digital technology also facilitates the development of a broad range of Internet-based applications and services such as social media, e-commerce, online education and working virtually or remotely.

It also makes it easier for individuals, families, friends and colleagues to communicate in real-time through instant messaging, e-mails, video and other digital communication tools.

As much as we are witnessing developments in major facets of our society, access to the Internet and digital technology remains unequal.

This can be attributed to the absence of sustainable infrastructure across the world, more so in developing countries and economic factors — which means individuals with higher incomes can afford to purchase the latest digital devices while those with lower incomes may have limited access to such devices.

Other factors are geographical, whereby access is limited as a result of inadequate infrastructure, forcing many to travel long distances in search of the commodity.

Additionally, those with lower levels of digital literacy may struggle to access and use the technology effectively while others may face challenges due to age, gender, ethnicity or disability.

This means some older adults may find it more challenging to use digital technology while differently-abled persons may need specialised devices or software to enable access.

Government policies may also be a hindrance to access, leading to technology access inequality.

Recently, Paradigm Initiative released its 2022 Digital Rights and Inclusion report, which confirms that access to digital technology in Africa remains a huge challenge, more so for persons with disabilities and under-served communities.

These persons face major barriers, including a lack of accessible infrastructure, digital literacy skills, and affordable assistive devices.

The report is categorical that access to digital opportunities by women and girls, including ICT education, still needs improvement.

As governments continue to bridge this divide, it is worth noting that emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are gaining traction, awareness and adoption on the continent.

Recent developments with AI tools demonstrate not only the potential the technology possesses to accelerate socio-economic growth but also to aggravate existing inequalities.

Inequality in digital technology access ought to be addressed using a multi-faceted approach that tackles economic, social, educational and geographical factors as well as government policies.

It also emphasizes that despite progress in bridging this divide, men continue to outrank women in various indices, from the adoption and use of ICT tools to employment opportunities.

The report also decries the introduction of prohibitive levies and taxes, which emerged as a common theme during the period under review, further hindering general access, as seen in Ghana, Malawi, and Uganda, amongst others.

The report shows that the Universal Service Fund (USF), which would normally support or accelerate digital and internet access across the continent exists in 22 out of the 24 countries reported, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tunisia, Uganda, Togo, The Gambia, Tanzania, Sudan, Rwanda, Nigeria, Malawi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Benin, South Sudan, Namibia and Botswana.

However, information on the amount of funds raised, transparency, and impact varies widely among these countries. Two countries, Angola and the Gambia do not currently have a USF.

The Londa report is emphatic that technology is crucial in connecting marginalised communities to the rest of the world in an increasingly globalised society.

It also greatly impacts human rights and socioeconomic growth. With this understanding, governments, more so in Africa, have continued efforts to bridge the digital divide and build digital economies.

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