Water, power ... Wi-Fi? Treating universal, affordable internet as essential infrastructure could have broad social and economic benefits.

Author:Mulligan, Gabriella
Position:Sector Focus: Urban Infrastructure

As Africa's urban centres expand, authorities are under pressure to invest in water, electricity and transport networks. However, as the continent becomes increasingly wired up to information networks--and as plans emerge to build so-called 'smart cities'--planners are asking whether universal, affordable internet access should be seen as a basic, necessary infrastructure.

Alan Knott-Craig, founder of South Africa's Project Isizwe--which aims to bring free Wi-Fi to low-income communities--believes that the impact of universal connectivity to education, healthcare, and public access to information make for compelling arguments in favour of promoting universal access as a basic public good.

"From teacher training, to early-childhood-development, to distance learning, the internet empowers learners to overcome local disadvantages and enter the global economy," Knott-Craig says.

These benefits are most profoundly felt, he adds, when access is targeted at low-income communities--where failing to close the digital divide could exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities.

"The people that benefit the most from internet access are the poor, and yet they are the most limited in internet access. Why? Because they don't have disposable income," Knott-Craig says.

"Free Wi-Fi should be deployed in low-income communities as a basic service, just like water and electricity. Otherwise all that will happen is the digital divide will grow and inequality will be exacerbated."

Beyond the obvious social benefits, says Bitange Ndemo, the former permanent secretary of Kenya's Ministry of ICT, access sparks creativity, creating a new level to the economy.

Free Wi-Fi should be provided to communities because access necessitates innovation," he says. "A few years ago when we did not have connectivity, you could not associate Kenya with innovation. You can see what access has done...

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