ICT is improving quality of life and the economic situation for many people in developing and emerging economies. The EU, as well as private companies are fostering these processes and aim to modernize the ICT environment in for example Africa and South America. EIF’s Dinner Debate on 20 September provided fascinating insights into developing markets that are growing at rapid speed.
If we look at Africa, the last 10 years show an incredible “mobile boom” from under one million users to over 500 million users today. Policy reforms have attracted more than 50 billion Euro in investments and broadband capacity multiplied by a factor 100 while tariffs dropped between 10 and 25 times. That makes Africa the fastest growing market worldwide. However it is still far behind Europe. With 40 times les traffic (than Europe) and less than 1% broadband penetration overall, the digital divide is still wide.
Mobile phone penetration has however created a turning point that brings new opportunities in terms of development because the technology has now become affordable and accessible and this spurts strong patterns of growth. What has become clear however, is that we need a comprehensive approach that recognizes that human development is essential for economic prosperity.
One of the pillars in that arena is the EU-Africa partnership on infrastructure, bringing together backbone infrastructure and satellite operators, funded by European development banks. Projects under this programme need to have at least 2 countries involved and are demand driven. A second pillar in this process is the EU-Africa partnership on Science, Information Society and Space. The rationale of it is that it is useless to invest in infrastructure if you do not have an enabling environment around that. This means taking action to promote regulatory support and programs to help people to develop digital content relevant to Africa in their own languages. The 3rd pillar is the R&D ICT programme of FP7, which is fully open to African participation and currently holds a number of projects that try to adapt technology to the local context(s).
Other areas that require a new approach are in the field of regulation. Because of the many networks there are several initiatives that try to harmonize regional regulatory frameworks in areas such as spectrum licensing and security. These measures are all developed in EU-Africa partnerships and aim to maximize impact on the ground.
One element of the obstacles to overcome are the access networks themselves. Internet needs more bandwidth than voice traffic and therefore there is an immediate need to develop bigger capacity fibre optic connections, and international connections because of a current lack of content produced locally in Africa. The devices themselves also still pose a hurdle because they are not as sophisticated as they are in Europe for example. To meet these limitations, applications such as Facebook Zero were developed that can offer similar to usual service on less high-tech equipment.
And last but not least there is the important part of ICT’s role in education. ICT is both a means and a must to transform education. When todays teenagers retire in 2060 they will have had more than 15 different jobs, a so-called certainty in uncertainty! Hence current education thinking needs to be transformed. Intel invested 10 billion Euro on developing such an education transformation model working together with over 60 governments. Such models also include transforming teachers into ICT educators through a predefined process and getting them involved in content creation.