Covid ICT Regulations Have Not Addressed Connectivity in Africa, Gillwald Tells WSIS

“COVID-19 has been a uniquely powerful game-changer, with digital connectivity now at the top of every nation’s agenda”, argues the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS). To this end, RIA’s Alison Gillwald was a panellist in a WSIS Forum 2021 discussion on the theme “Digital Transformation Acceleration – Connectivity in the Post COVID world”, on 17 March 2021.

This session addressed ICT policy makers and regulators responses to the COVID 19 pandemic, exploring how regulatory frameworks evolved, whether measures applied during the crisis were sustainable as well as what long term policy and regulatory trends are emerging.

Gillwald talked about ICT policy and regulation in Africa arguing, across the continent, digital technologies have been unable to help millions of people due to digital unreadiness.

Due to very low levels of smartphone penetration, African countries were unable to effectively deploy ICTs. For example, in terms of emergency health measures, none of the Sub-Saharan African countries were able to use Bluetooth contact tracing mechanisms because there simply isn’t enough Internet penetration.

One of the policy gaps identified by Gillwald is the lack of demand-side data. South Africa, for example, relied on unaudited supply side administrative data, which indicated that there was a 90% smartphone penetration rate when at most, the country has 60%. So, some of the mechanisms, such as the COVID smart app, actually turned out to be redundant. 

Gillwald argued further that elites throughout the continent have been able to move seamlessly online to substitute for their schooling, food security, banking and remote work. However, digital substitution was impossible for the majority of Africans because connectivity is a challenge. “You can’t work remotely on tiny little bits of data that you are using intermittently.”

Meanwhile, the informal sector, which normally acts as a buffer when African countries experience exogenous shocks, was unable to play that role during the pandemic, as informal sector value chains collapsed under lockdowns, Gillwald argued. In this regard, RIA’s 2018 After Access survey in ten African countries found that only 7% of the informal sector actually had access to the Internet and had a smartphone.

For Gillwald, this raises challenges around targets and measures of what meaningful access means. While there have been some temporary regulatory efforts, these have ameliorated the conditions of those who are already connected. Strategies such as mandatory price reductions or giving existing operators additional spectrum, which they’ve handed on to their existing subscribers, doesn’t actually address the issues of lack of connectivity. For example, 80% of Rwandans and 60% of Kenyans are still not online.

Acknowledging institutional capacity constraints, Gillwald argued that there still isn’t sufficient policy experimentation across the continent. For example, one year into COVID, as regulatory process gets underway again, 5G spectrum is still being auctioned in a very similar way as before. In this regard, the policy outcomes we’ve had from commercial supply-side only valuation of allocation of resource is through current existing national licensing frameworks. These have produced poor outcomes and are not being addressed by balancing this with more demand-side valuation in the allocation of goods, that would create commons, she said.

Gillwald called for a re-examination of universal services strategies, such as the lobby for free public Wi-Fi, which doesn’t really work in pandemic conditions. We need to be going back and thinking about our old strategies of how we get computer devices into homes, she said.

If we don’t address regulatory challenges, we are going to play into the digital inequality paradox that as we connect more people, we actually have greater inequality, Gillwald argued.  

Watch a Zoom recording of the discussion here.