INTERNET experts‚ entrepreneurs‚ government and telecoms industry players gather on Thursday (05/09/2013) for Google’s Big Tent event in Johannesburg‚ the first to be held in sub-Saharan Africa‚ to discuss the role of the internet in developing the economy.
Vint Cerf‚ Google strategist and a key speaker at the event‚ said this week that Google’s Big Tents brought together government‚ industry and civil society leaders to discuss the "big and sometimes controversial challenges facing the internet and society”.
The internet is seen as enabling all parts of the economy. It can also lower the barrier to entry for new businesses.
Despite being one of Africa’s biggest economies‚ South Africa’s internet access remains low compared with other African countries. For example‚ Nigeria‚ Kenya‚ Egypt and Morocco all have upwards of 25% of their populations online‚ while in South Africa that figure is estimated at 17%.
Mr Cerf — seen as one of the "fathers of the internet” for his involvement in the development of early web technology — said about two out of every three people on average globally lacked effective access to the internet‚ which he described as "one of the most transformative technologies of our lifetimes”.
"One of my primary missions has been to highlight the transformative impact the internet can have on economies and societies. I want more people to be online. Solving the access challenges is a big obstacle but progress is visible‚” he said.
Google is rolling out a number of initiatives aimed at bringing web access to unconnected people across the globe‚ especially in Africa.
One of the projects is the use of unused TV spectrum referred to as TV White Spaces to deliver broadband internet without interfering with licensed spectrum holders. Another one is Project Loon‚ which aims to give internet access to more people around the world through a network of high-altitude balloons. Google is experimenting with technology that uses the balloons to beam web access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G network. It hopes to bring the project to South Africa in the future.
"Our hope is that these two experiments and perhaps others to come will provide another alternative means of linking rural areas to the global internet‚” said Mr Cerf.
He cited a report released last year by digital research provider World Wide Worx into the economic importance of the internet in the South African economy‚ which found the digital economy contributed 2% of South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP).
This means the internet economy is nearly equal in size to the Northern Cape province’s GDP contribution of 2.3% and is comparable to other sectors such as agriculture‚ accounting for 2.1%‚ and utilities (electricity‚ gas and water) at 2.6%.
"What’s more encouraging is that the local internet economy has a potential to contribute a lot more as more people get online‚ especially via mobile. However‚ much more still has to be done‚” said Mr Cerf.
He said Africa’s challenges with regards to connectivity were not unique. Getting more people online‚ making sure people have the skills to take advantage of the internet and encouraging small and medium-sized businesses to make the most of online opportunities are common challenges around the world.
Africa has made some strides in addressing access to telecommunications infrastructure through undersea cables. The continent has a number of these cables linking it to the rest of the world. But in South Africa‚ access to the national backbone — local-loop or last-mile access — remains a challenge.
Mr Cerf believes that to drive down prices‚ industry participants must have access not only to the undersea cables‚ but also to domestic backbones to reach customers where they are.
"An overly restrictive regulatory environment can make it very expensive for the private sector to deploy fibre‚ and these increased costs are passed on to the users‚” he said.
A "dig-once” policy is a smart way to ensure that fibre is deployed quickly as possible and relatively inexpensively across South Africa‚ added Mr Cerf.
"This is to say that when the government builds any roads‚ fibre installations should be a part of the project‚ as 90% of fibre costs involve construction expenses. This‚ in the end will benefit consumers and businesses that use the internet‚” he said. © BDlive 2013