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QA: POTRAZ Director General On Access To Information & Digital Literacy @ WSIS Forum 19

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POTRAZ Director General, Gift Machengete answered some questions at the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society ) High Level Discussion Forum in Geneva.The issues discussed include insights on measures taken by POTRAZ on improving access to information for Zimbabweans along with steps taken to increase internet access and digital literacy in the country.

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Here’s what the Director General had to say:

Q: What are the measures that the regulator in Zimbabwe has taken and continues to take, in order to ensure universal access to ICT Services and knowledge for all, in Zimbabwe?

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DG: SDG goal 9c on access to ICTs for all by 2030 will remain a pipedream if certain fundamental aspects are not attended to especially in developing countries. Landlocked developing countries appeal to the world for capacitation to accelerate the provision of an enabling environment.

We need funding for:

  • ICT and  Energy Infrastructure
  • Inclusivity for disabled and speakers of minority languages
  • Content development
  • Research and Development
  • Capacity building
  • Accelerated ICT Access and Use
  • This will enable the attainment of SDGs

HOWEVER DESPITE ALL THE ABOVE AS A REGULATOR WE HAVE MANAGED TO DO THE FOLLOWING  IN ZIMBABWE….

I would like to begin by saying that, the World Bank’s World Development Report 2016, on Digital Dividends indicates that; “even though digital technologies bring benefits to people, businesses, and governments, these benefits are not spreading evenly enough and rapidly enough to allow true global economic growth.” The most affected areas are the marginalised rural communities, which have lagged behind in terms of access and use. To overcome this challenge, the regulator in Zimbabwe is rolling out various ICT access and use programmes.  

To start with, we have the Passive Infrastructure project, where twenty (20) Multi Operator Radio Access Network sites have been completed to date.  The country needs 350 base stations to ensure total coverage. A partner has since been identified for this project and contract negotiations are underway. In the same vein, the regulator is rolling out base stations under a Built Transfer Operate (BTO) model. Here, operators are requested to erect shared towers on behalf of the regulator and then pay reduced annual licence fees in order to recoup their investment.  Similarly, the regulator has introduced infrastructure-sharing regulations into the regulatory framework for MNOs to complement this project.

The regulator is also running an e-learning and schools connectivity programme where to date, it has distributed 4823 computers, 30 servers and 90 printers to 323 rural schools, while a total of 750 schools have been connected. To cater for community members who are out of school, the regulator has set up 145 Community Information Centres and  24 Containerised Village Information Centres. Over 10500 people have been trained at these centres, countrywide, since October last year. To cater for the disabled, the regulator availed customised computer hardware and software to six (6) institutions housing people living with disabilities.

I am glad to say that, Zimbabwe won a grant from the ITU  to set up a regional IXP and that project is already up and running with numerous local organisations already peering on it. Additionally, the regulator is promoting local content creation and innovation through an Innovation Drive, where young people are receiving funding for bankable ICT projects.

Meanwhile, the regulator has been consistently lobbying government to remove or lower excise duty on ICT gadgets especially smartphones. This will improve ICT access and use by the rural communities.

Finally, in support of the National Broadband Plan, the regulator has also embedded Broadband roll-out targets as part of the licence conditions for ISPs. In line with these targets, government owned ISP, TelOne, recently launched a multi-million dollar fibre backbone project. This will see the provision of cheaper internet at higher bandwidths, across the country.

Q: What approaches are available to increase Internet access and digital literacy among unserved and underserved rural communities?

DG: Article 5 of the 2015 United Nations General Assembly established the link between WSIS and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 9c of the SDGs stresses the need to ‘significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2030’. One cannot talk about Digital literacy without internet access neither can one talk about digital literacy without general literacy. The approaches to increase access and use of the internet are varied but I will deliberate on the major ones.

Firstly, there is need for sound regulatory interventions, to attract  investments in the ICT sector. Regulations should also ensure that prices of ICT products are affordable. On that note, I am happy that Orange recently launched the Sanza smartphone, which costs only 20USD. Relatedly, plans by Mara group to start full-scale smartphone manufacturing in Africa are expected to push the prices of smartphones down.

There is also need for a good national ICT infrastructure backbone supported by a robust National Broadband Plan. This can be complimented by both Private- Public partnerships between USFs and operators and Private – Private Partnerships between operators and tech giants.  For example, there could be partnerships between operators and tech giants, such as Facebook, to launch free connectivity services for the benefit of marginalised communities.

Additionally, there is need to create local content which would significantly reduce costs of using the internet and even earn the content creators revenue, when this content is redistributed to other parts of the world. The evolution and wide usage of Web 2.0 tools, allowing ordinary users to become contributors and content developers, offers an opportunity for wide availability of local content in a variety of languages.

Local content creation can be supported by the establishment of Internet Exchange Points. IXPs can also improve Internet quality and affordability in local communities by strengthening local Internet connectivity, improving competitiveness, and can also serve as hubs for technical activity.

Relatedly, there is need to make content available in local languages for it to have a wider reach. According to the World Wide Web Technology Surveys 2018 statistics, approximately 53.4% of Web content is in English, whereas only 20% of the world’s population speak that language. All the other languages share 46.6% of Web content despite having 80% of the world population. 

It is also important to use appropriate technologies depending on terrain and distance from fibre links. This will entail savings on cost of internet roll-out. Similarly, appropriate assistive hardware and software should also be availed to vulnerable groups such as people living with disabilities. It would be of no use to avail  computers to the disabled with no assistive hardware and software

Awareness campaigns on the need for digital literacy and on the advantages of ICTs to communities are important as they create the appetite to learn how to use ICTs. These should be followed up by the actual training in basic computer appreciation skills as a foundation for use.

Lastly, but not least important, is Rural Electrification as an enabler for ICT use and access. ICT gadgets run on electrical energy and without it there cannot be any ICT access and use. Therefore, rural electrification becomes an integral component in the ICT access and use matrix. In fact, others contend that rural electrification programmes should start and ICT interventions should follow.    


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