There is a lot of talk about bridging the Digital Divide in Africa, as there is talk about reducing levels of poverty. And a method of supplying universal access to everyone is something that we have been looking into over the years, it needs to be simple and inexpensive – What came out tops for Internet and Email use was a cellphone, using Opera Mini web browser, this solution overcomes a lot of the major problems – For this project to succeed it needs individuals to have worked out how to connect various phones and to pass the skills onto others
Let us look why we picked the humble mobile phone as the solution. Firstly the cost of a mobile phone that can work with Opera Mini is a fraction of the price of a new (or second hand) PC – The power requirements of running the phone are very low and suited to rural areas – The only software needed is Opera Mini which is available free – Currently there are no ISP charges for users accessing the Internet, and users only pay for the data used, on pre-paid accounts this can range from Sixty Cents (Virginmobile) or Two Rand a Meg. Getting connected is quick and easy, mobile phones have a service available in large parts of South Africa and Africa in General
Mobile phones can be connected to PCs and used as Modems to connect to the Internet, in some cases they will even work with what is now regarded as low tech equipment and software. This website for example is built and maintained on a PC running Windows 98 and connected with a Mobile Phone. Please note some phones and their software will not work with older version of Windows so before buying a phone check Mobile for Internet use First
Now looking at PCs, the cost of equipment, and its use. To supply new computers to people, would be difficult, entry level PCs can cost anything from R 3 500 to R 5 000 – the cost of Windows alone is about R 800,00 – There is at the moment a project in place to try and supply notebooks for $100 – It is however possible to supply working used PCs – even a old P1 with Windows 98 or 95 will give good results, maintenance and repairs on these computers can be a bit tricky
Then there is the problem of maybe not having a proper electrical supply, as was the case in a little while back when a Nigerian school was given 300 Notebooks, when it turned out that they and most of the pupils did not have electricity or that the supply was not reliable, this has now become a problem in South Africa
The next problem is Software, which sometimes can cost more than the PC – It is always a good idea to contact Vendors directly and talk to them about what software you would like to run on PCs even if it is Windows 3.1 getting people to learn how to use a mouse, learning how to copy and paste… or learning how to use a spreadsheet – Also you cannot use some of the latest software on older computers. Then there is also the Open Source route, where you have Operating Systems like Linux, and Office Suites like Open Office, which have Word Processors, spreadsheets and other programs. They are known as Free to use, as you do not have to purchase them, they can be downloaded or distributed free of charge.
Let us imagine that our users have managed to get a PC and a bit of software together, we know that there is a lot of Information on the Internet, but sadly the cost of using the Internet in South Africa is high. All the books and learning are sitting in one place, but it is a place that has a price tag… and for South Africans it is one of the most expensive in the world. All this talk about learning, bridging the digital divide and getting rid of poverty in light of the fact that South Africans have to pay such a high cost for Access to the Internet, well it is enough to drive you mad. One would almost think that it was a case of double talk, were people are saying that things need to be done, but in fact the opposite happens. It is either that or they are divorced from reality… or that they are powerless to make that change and are just publicly voicing their concerns in the hope that something might happen.
The reality of it all is that unless you are living in the Urban heartland (and if there are lines available) it can be difficult and expensive for people to get fixed line dial up, or ADSL – and even if you do, it means that you have to pay a ISP a fixed price every month and then pay for calls to the Internet, this for a lot of people is simply not possible – Had a system of Un-metered local calls been in place, this might have been a different story. Looking at ADSL which is distance limited, meaning that it is only going to work near major exchanges, if dial-up ISP charges are too much, you can forget about ADSL charges, which pretty much sums up things, unless you are going to shell out a few hundred Rand a month no one seems to be interested
However all is not lost and there is still a way for people to get connected with their Computer at low cost. It can be done using a Mobile phone as a modem, most WAP phones can do this, you would need to check the model of your phone to see if it is suitable, and then also remember that the software that comes with some of the phones will not work on older Operating Systems like Windows 98 – The Samsung e250 wants either Windows 2000 sp4 or Windows XP but the Motorola V360 will work with Windows 98 (Phonetools v4) this means that you can connect to the Internet with a very low spec computer, for example a P1 with 32 Meg of RAM and a one or two gig hard drive
Connecting with Mobile phones has some advantages, firstly there is no Internet Subscription to pay, this would typically cost between R 45,00 to R 80,00 a month. You only pay for the data used, not the time spent… so if you were connected for one hour or one day and only used one meg of data, you would only pay for that, which for example Currently on pre-paid Virginmobile would be 50 Cents and on Vodacom, CellC and MTN it would be R 2,00 – You can also turn of your pictures in your browser and this can save a lot of data, sometimes you really do not want to see banner advertisements and stuff, if there is a Picture you want to see (normally there is a description of the picture) then all you have to do is right click on the picture and select show picture. Some websites are stuffed full of things and are more geared to people with broadband – There is no callmore time a mobile service, so people can go on any time of day, you should be able to get by with a monthly bill of about R 15,00 – 50,00 Which is about the most affordable service I have seen – To give you a better idea of things and the costing of various items you might also want to check out the article Saying Goodbye to Telkom