In the past year, connectivity has taken the spotlight. It turbo-charged our resilience and accelerated digital adoption bringing much-needed services and resources to people during the most challenging period in recent history. Now, as we look ahead to a hybrid future, investing in connectivity will prove crucial to boosting the momentum gained, and picking up the pace of progress as we ‘build back better’.
Connectivity is increasingly regarded as a human right as defined by the UN – with access to the internet enhancing our right to health, education, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression. To deliver on the possibilities of a better-connected future, it is vital that the digital infrastructure which enabled hospital appointments, educational learning, and personal finances for many, becomes accessible for all.
At the heart of our recent progress in the digital sphere has been broadband. It has formed the foundation for today’s smart infrastructure and supported the development of many connectivity advancements. However, according to the World Bank, while 80% of citizens in advanced economies can avail to broadband access, this extends to only 35% of the population in developing countries.
With significant disparity in accessibility between rural and urban areas to this day, the emergence of 5G holds many of the answers to the question of global and equitable connectivity. 5G could support rural residents’ access to telemedicine services, control efficient irrigation systems to improve water management, and even revolutionise first responders’ approach to emergency situations. Through 5G-enabled augmented reality (AR) we can also realise new dimensions in 3D visualisation, support blockchain-powered platforms to govern identity, and bring autonomous vehicles to people in all locations of the world.
By working collaboratively, global public and private sectors together can address this challenge, evolve national infrastructures, and deliver a fairer, more accessible and connected future. In fact, South Africa has already achieved great strides in driving digital inclusion where the internet penetration rates are high. According to the Digital Report 2021 the number of internet users in South Africa increased by 1.7 million (4.5%) between 2020 and 2021 with internet penetration at 64% in January 2021. However, a lot of work is still to be done.
Better connected: The business imperative
There is an opportunity to build upon what we have learned so far – keeping the accelerated pace of digital transformation revolving, with innovative connectivity projects that put citizens at the heart of this progression. By enabling more people to plug into global flows of information, communication, and services, digitalised infrastructure could grow the African GDP. A study by the International Telecommunication Union found that 10% greater mobile broadband penetration would generate a 2.5% rise in Africa’s GDP per capita.
In a study recently released by World Wide Worx, titled ‘The Digital Corporation in South Africa 2021’, connectivity stood out as the area in which organisations are prioritising their ICT spend. A resounding 97% of organisations surveyed have prioritised connectivity in their ICT spend. In addition, organisations across the Middle East and Africa are keeping pace with global investment levels in the newer technologies available on the market, including Edge and AI, and some like South Africa are even ahead of others globally when it comes to investing in 5G, according to the Dell Technologies Digital Transformation Index Report 2020. Over 47% of respondents in South Africa said they will be investing in 5G infrastructure in the next 1 – 3 years, when compared to the global average of 37%.
The businesses that lay the groundwork for 5G now with emerging technologies, like edge computing and data analytics will gain the competitive advantage. They will be poised to seize the opportunity to effectively personalise services, flexing and responding to real-time, data-driven consumer needs. With the roll-out of lower latency connectivity, entire industries will transform and flourish. Smart factories will bring greater efficiencies, supply chains will become more transparent and even the transport of goods and people will evolve with the use of automated vehicles and high-speed travel networks. Mixed reality will come on stream as a viable method for remote employee training – or classroom learning. In the meantime, a wider section of society will have the option to work from home with better accessibility and improved balance across many facets of their everyday lives. These are the innovations we are already aware of – but what about those that are not yet imagined?
A scalable, technology-enabled recovery, founded on connectivity and availing of the latest innovations will help to ensure that the strides we have made through necessity in the past year can be built upon, delivering better health, learning, and quality of life outcomes for all. We have an opportunity to rebuild and reimagine our world. At the centre of any grand plans, we will find digital transformation – if harnessed effectively, technology can be an enabler and an equaliser, supporting new and agile ways of working, customer interaction, and data innovation. It can facilitate growth potential across the board and create a better future for all of us.