“Our vision is of a world where everyone can be connected to anyone or to anything. A world of connected societies that enables people to fulfill their potential and realize their
aspirations. We regard universal access as much more than an industry goal Ã¢â‚¬â€œ for us it is a responsibility.”
Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, President and Chief Executive Officer, Nokia
Universal Access has been defined in its broadest sense to mean the ability of all people to have equal opportunity and access to a service or product from which they can benefit, regardless of their social class, ethnicity, background or physical disabilities.
Within the context of the information revolution, universal access refers to the possibility for every citizen of the world, regardless of their digital skills, geographical and socio-economic situation, to create and/or use for themselves or through telematics networks already installed in their environment, and to find and place on the Internet, information useful for their life plans. It can simply be regarded as the democratization of access to and use of information communication technologies (ICTs).
A closely related concept is universal service, a situation where 100 per cent of the population is able to receive, by reasonable request and at a reasonable cost, a specific service on an individual or household basis. Within the framework of ICTs, the concept refers to universal telephone service; that is, all households should be able to have, on request, home telephone service at an affordable rate.
Universal service tend to be a long-term policy goal of most countries. Rather, universal access tend to be a common policy goal for most countries. The focus of this paper will be on universal access and internet connectivity issues in rural Africa.
The concept has been debated at the international level by multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, etc. For example, the G8 meetings in Okinawa, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), regional conferences on digital integration, and the establishment of several global initiatives are attempts to sensitize the international community to the plight of millions of people around the world who have been excluded from the benefits of the information society.
The general consensus is that universal access to ICTs can extricate communities from the grip of poverty and boost their economic and social development. Using access devices such as computers, telephones, the Internet, televisions, radio, and other communication gadgets can further enhance the living conditions of poor people.
Several countries in African have adopted Universal Access principles in their desire to extend modern communication services to marginalized communities. So, where do we stand as a continent with respect to achieving universal access? What will it take to achieve universal access? How will universal access affect Africans?
One prerequisite for the realization of the goals of universal access is the state of development of the telecommunication and ICT infrastructure in a given country. A solid telecommunication and ICT infrastructure will democratize access to these tools and make it possible for several people whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been traditionally excluded to be part of the new knowledge society.
Rural telephony is vital to generating rural growth. The introduction of telecommunication in remote areas in Africa will facilitate universal access to opportunities and information technology for those living in rural areas. Through this access people in remote areas will have new opportunities to use their talent and their efforts to address fundamental challenges confronting them.
With over 70% of the population of Africa living in rural areas, a universal access plan for rural Africa is essential to facilitate development in these areas.
Funding is crucial for the realisation of the goals of universal access. The establishment of a Universal Access Fund (UAF) in the respective African countries will enable most governments to raise a portion of the needed resources to fund the development of telecommunication and ICTs.
All telephone operators (both fixed and mobile) and technology-related institutions should be mandated to contribute two (2 per cent) of their budget to this fund.
This fund will enable the establishment of an appropriate framework to support telecommunications and ICT development in respective African countries. It will go beyond the current practice in some countries where incumbent telephone operators are made to contribute a percentage of their budget to provide telecommunications services in underserved communities.
Such a fund will, among others, provide telephone services, provide connectivity, facilitate the introduction of the Internet in rural communities, promote ICT capacity building, address the issue of content creation, and ensure the democratization of technological skills across the continent. The availability of the fund will also ensure that the provision of communication services is not commercially driven.
As part of the roadmap toward the realisation of universal access, public access sites to ICT resources will be needed to ensure that the broad mass of Africans who cannot afford to acquire the needed ICT tools (computers, software, etc.) are not excluded from the benefits of the information society.
Antonia Stone, founder of the Playing to Win computer training centers, calls public access sites “Mass transit for the Information Highway”.
Another area where much work is needed is the creation of a form of online payment. A form of digital cash is needed to enable people pay for vitally needed services electronically. Most of Africa has less secured avenues to accept international online payments using Visa, Mastercard, American Express, etc.
Global online banking institutions such as PayPal and NoChex have made it possible for e-commerce payment to be effected. However, these services are not widely known in Africa. Some countries are experimenting with the use of universal smart cards. Mauritius, the cyber island of Africa and, South Africa are experimenting with smart cards that will enable users to hold small amounts of money and other personal data such as health and driving license information.
Today, information is recognised as playing a strategic role in everything we do. We need to strive to find the best way to ensure that Africa becomes a key player in the quest to obtain universal access.