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University of Pretoria prof urges govt to improve Internet density

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Professor Tawana Kupe, University of Pretoria vice-chancellor and principal.
Professor Tawana Kupe, University of Pretoria vice-chancellor and principal.

Professor Tawana Kupe, vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, is urging government to release spectrum, which he says, is necessary to expand e-commerce, encourage competition and improve Internet density.

Kupe’s call comes on the back of numerous similar demands from various quarters. Mobile operators in SA have been waiting for years for allocation of spectrum in order to provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services.

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, there has been a massive spike in data traffic, with more people working or learning from home, resulting in the authorities temporarily releasing spectrum to operators, but the industry is calling for a permanent solution.

In his speech to mark World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, Kupe said decision-makers need to be proactive, “future-oriented and put in place a communications policy and the necessary regulatory frameworks which prioritise affordable infrastructure for access and lowering the cost of data”.

Globally, World Telecommunication and Information Society Day is commemorated on 17 May and dates back to the signing of the First International Telegraph Convention on the same day in May 1865.

“As we commemorate World Telecommunication and Information Society Day on 17 May, we remember that where we are now in terms of how we communicate is truly remarkable when you consider the day’s humble beginnings.”

Kupe, who is also principal of the university, urged “businesses, industry players and academic institutions to continue to innovate and find solutions that will enable us to drive human progress and bridge the digital divide in the future”.

Back to basics

He noted the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the importance of ICT in national development.

“We are living through a very stressful and trying time; practising social distancing and obeying the rules of the lockdown makes us feel very much apart. But at the same time, access to the Internet has helped us find new ways of connecting with each other for emotional support as well as the sharing of information and knowledge.”

Kupe said communication is a basic human need, and the Internet has connected and disconnected us with and from each other in many ways.

“Estonia was one of the first countries to describe access to the Internet as a human right, in 2001. Today, we can see the importance of access to the Internet and how communication technologies are helping to plug all types of communities directly into the economy through e-commerce. But e-commerce in Africa is not anywhere near the scale of the western world’s e-economy. This is in part due to logistical problems, the geographic spacing of rural areas, and a lack of physical infrastructure like quality roads and transport systems to ensure efficiency.

“This growing digital divide is exacerbated by the inequality in our society, and needs to be addressed where the playing fields are levelled in terms of access.”

According to Kupe, the Internet has, in theory, democratised many things, including information access, “but there are structural and economic barriers in place which hamper access for some people. These barriers mirror the class, race and socio-economic hurdles we face as a society.

“In South Africa, data providers have been accused of exorbitant data bundle pricing when compared to other countries. This has proved to be a notable setback for many students at tertiary institutions, who either don’t have sufficient funds for data, or do not have access to an Internet-enabled device which would allow them to work from home and keep up with their class work.

“The digital divide here again sees poorer students disadvantaged by a cost structure that makes bigger data bundles progressively cheaper by the gigabyte. Poorer students who do not have larger amounts of disposable income can only buy smaller and more expensive bundles. This further disadvantages many poor, first-generation students who view formal tertiary education as a way out of poverty for their family and broader community.”

However, he said, in keeping with the social compact and social justice, more data providers have come to the table during the various crises generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They have worked closely with universities to help make access more equitable by not charging data fees for the microsites where learning and research content will be placed. This has helped considerably to lower the burden in terms of the financial impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning, especially in lower-income households.”

At the University of Pretoria, Kupe’s team worked around the clock to get laptops to as many students as possible who needed them over the course of the past few weeks.

“Our hope is to ensure the academic year can now proceed with minimal setbacks.”

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