Douglas Cohen (South Africa) - Creating Connected Places

Douglas Cohen looks at the promise of better broadband in South Africa. He evaluates the difference between urban and rural areas and discusses the concept of 'Smarter Cities'.

South Africa is a country of extreme diversity, contradictions and unfortunately inequality. Besides the obvious inequality of income and wealth, it is rather the inequality of opportunity that is one the most debilitating forms of discrimination between the haves and the have-nots. The disparities between urban and rural economies are very visible in the current telecommunication footprint.  It is common knowledge that the broadband penetration rate in South Africa is nothing short of dismal. Less than 10% of the country’s people have access to a fast, always-on Internet connection, a fact that inhibits our country’s social development and economic growth.

Few would argue that broadband helps spur GDP growth by improving transparency and the speed of markets, reducing transaction costs for businesses and consumers alike, as well as increasing productivity. In short - broadband creates opportunities. Failed policies, a lack of incentives or ineffective markets means that broadband carriers do not invest in many of the rural and remote regions of the country. The result is a strong spatial division, more connected urban places and disconnected rural spaces.

The rush into the cities, mass urbanization, caused in part by the attraction of opportunities for wealth generation and economic development has made very tangible impact. Don’t believe me? I challenge anyone to successfully try get in and out of any Joburg shopping mall on a payday weekend under 3 hours. Seriously, the numbers are scary - according to estimates, an additional 500 million people will be urbanized in the next five years and projections indicate that 60% of the world’s population will be urbanized by 2030. The sheer size and scale of these urban areas demand ongoing major infrastructure projects that mesh together transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks. However, while cities are getting larger does that really make them better?

This incredibly rapid growth also brings with severe ecological, economic and social problems. For the administration of such cities, it is increasingly difficult to manage this growth in a sustainable way. The reality is that that over 70% of the growth currently takes place outside the formal municipal planning process and that in sub-Saharan Africa, 90% of new urban settlements are taking the form of slums. So as residents, or visitors, in cities like Joburg, Cape Town and Durban we look on helplessly as the daily number of new shacks increases, sprawled on almost any and every available public or private space.  Informal settlements are only one part of long list of problems for administrations in large cities, other challenges include managing traffic congestion, energy inadequacy, lack of basic services, illegal construction,  crime, water, soil and air pollution etc.

However before you panic and try to move to some serene country village or wine farm, the scale of the problems and the high density actually creates an ideal market opportunity.  In fact, you should be glad to know that many of the big multi-nationals of the IT industry may have all these challenges covered through their various “Smart City” solutions. These try and apply Information Technologies to planning, designing, building, and operation of cities through “smart innovation, smart processes and smart infrastructure”.  Information technology tools are definitely greatly improving our world and our lives, and will continue to do so. 

Across any large city or a small rural town, having reliable and affordable broadband connectivity provides a ubiquitous platform real-time collaboration and interactivity. Connectivity reinforces our inter-dependency that help us live smarter and make better decisions. This is true for individuals and municipalities. The recent, and many, local community-led protests show that all South African municipalities are constantly being challenged by their residents to improve the accessibility and quality of services.

As the primary public service provider and infrastructure manager to local communities, Local Government is also in a key position to facilitate the growth of broadband. While fiber-to-the-home in South Africa is not yet available but said to “inevitable”, it would only be made available within the dense urban areas. However, all is not lost, and once again smart technologies come to the rescue. I am laying my hopes on long-term evolution (LTE) wireless broadband technology to meet not only the growing bandwidth requirements of both consumers and companies but for also those who are currently disconnected, particularly in our rural areas.  Join me in crossing your fingers that it happens very soon.

Douglas Cohen is a specialist in economic development and ICT’s and works at the South African Local Government Association (SALGA)