Advancing Youth Access to the Internet and Digital Tools

By Lily Edinam Botsyoe

Background

The call towards digital inclusion and digital transformation has been ongoing especially with the advancements in the fourth industrial revolution.

In recent times, these talks have intensified since the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic. 

This announcement was followed with precautionary steps to limit the global spread of the pandemic including the imposition of bans on gatherings, commercial activities among others.

The President of Ghana in his address on Friday, the 27th of March, 2020 restricted movement in parts of the country for weeks which was subject to reviews.

This announcement resulted in a paradigm shift in activities and lifestyle with the rise in schools holding classes online, office staff working from home, and many other activities held in virtual meetings.

Access to the internet and hence information became crucial for ensuring public awareness and trust, providing avenues to verify the news items, ensuring accountability as well as developing and monitoring the implementation of public policies aimed at solving the crisis.

The Internet has been the answer to many coronavirus lockdown problems and presents the rare opportunity for continuity of offline activities, remotely.

It has, therefore, become even more necessary to hold policy discussions on the accessibility, availability, and resilience of the internet ensuring its continuous use towards the development of all sectors nationally and the globe at large.

Access and Digital Inclusion for youth

To reap the benefits on the internet, access to devices and internet connectivity is paramount. Nonetheless, digital inclusion extends beyond the above to include: 

Digital skills – being able to use computers and the internet. On the issue of digital skilling, it is necessary to be familiar with the subtle nuances existing between digital skills and digital literacy. The former is aligned towards equipping with skills for the usage of IT tools while the latter is a holistic approach to impart knowledge that helps one understand the technology ecosystem and even be positioned to make decisions even as far as pursuing careers in the field.

Connectivity – and access to the internet. People need the right infrastructure but that is only the start.

Accessibility – services should be designed to meet all users’ needs, including those dependent on assistive technology to access digital services. Accessibility is a barrier for many people, but digital inclusion is broader.

Affordability – also important to note is affordability which remains a barrier for many young people.

Looking ahead, affordability can be enhanced through the creation of Smart-Cities which uses technology to provide services and solve city problems. 

The main goals of a smart city are to improve policy efficiency, reduce waste and inconvenience, improve social and economic quality, and maximize social inclusion.

Smart-Cities include locally manufactured smart devices such as sensors. Through partnership arrangements, companies classified for the original manufacturing of equipment can set up their manufacturing plants in Ghana to produce these smart devices that can be installed to identify things like traffic jams and measure air and water quality. 

All these hinges on the availability of basic infrastructure and paramount of them are electricity and connectivity.

Ghana has a young age structure, with approximately 57% of the population under the age of 25. The median age in Ghana is 21.5 years

In these age brackets, most of the youth are either in school or scouting for jobs and hence are stifled financially to remain connected in such times when activities have gone virtual.

In sub-Saharan Africa, one gigabit (GB) of data – enough to stream a standard-definition film for one hour – costs nearly 40% of the average monthly wage but of course, youth activities online go beyond streaming movies. Young people as active users of the Internet are evolving not just as users of the Internet and its resources, but contributing to building its core.

Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) uses a “1 for 2” measure for affordable internet — affordable internet is where 1GB of mobile broadband data is priced at 2% or less of average monthly income.

This “1 for 2” target has been adopted by the UN Broadband Commission, the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), Nigeria, and Ghana but this threshold has not been achieved in Ghana.

The pandemic has therefore made evident the extent of the digital divide in the sub-region with young people most likely to be the highest sufferers having to take full coursework and run businesses online with not so much support.

There were many interventions for utilities such as water and electricity in Ghana and no intervention available for data bundle and connectivity prices in the country.

This led to the trending of the #Reducedataprices on Twitter in April which only gained traction for a few days and was discontinued.

On the other side of this divide are people who have no access mostly in rural communities and are cut off from the internet.

The way forward

Towards equipping the next cadre of internet leaders and to enable young people to contribute effectively, learn and be equipped for the global marketplace, efforts of providing access, affordability ( of devices and internet resources ), and digital literacy must be redoubled by all stakeholders.

In light of this, the Ghana Youth IGF organized a virtual event on the 16th of July, 2020 to discuss steps towards advancing access to the internet and digital tools. A communique and draft messages curated by youth will be made available to the public. 

Strategic partnerships with multinational organizations, industry, and stakeholder groups should be strengthened to develop new solutions and help subsidize the high cost of connectivity. 

Areas of focus in such partnerships could include feasibility studies, regulatory capacity building, dialogue with communities such as the Internet Society and Internet Governance community for technical assistance in sector reforms. 

Also, local solutions to connecting the unconnected such as encouraging the building of community networks which are not simply electronic networks but embody community efforts to harness ICT in aiding development.

Though many people are keen on deploying community networks, they need policy and regulatory assistance in some countries to get started. These processes can be regulated to ensure smooth coexistence between these networks and telecommunication companies.

To allow for inclusivity for students in such times, efforts should be redoubled by stakeholders to reduce the prizes of data bundle for students who are taking full coursework online by halting the collection of communication service that which was increase following fiscal policy proposals in the Mid-Year Budget Review for 2019 from 6% to 9% 

Again, the whitelisting of educational sites can be made extensive. As it stands, this intervention by telecommunication companies has been targeted at sites of tertiary institutions and donation of data packages to tertiary institutions and learning institutions. Hence for individuals who have no linkage to educational institutions, it is difficult to carry out research and stay online if a substantive amount of money is not put into getting a data bundle. On the other hand, there is the option for free browsing by many telecommunication companies on social media platforms such as Facebook, where text loads except for media. This can also be done for all educational sites with popular learning sites which have no particular link to institutions.

Conclusion

Technology and the internet have moved from being just networks to being a natural extension of who we are, enabling development and focal to every sector. Towards a sustainable internet for all, Political/governmental commitment, infrastructure development, capacity building to accompany this development, access to tools, cybersecurity, and digital cooperation in the sub-region and the global front should be prioritized.

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