When I used to be active in the social media, I often had the impulse to respond to any “absurd” message that came my way in the social media. It did not matter whether I could eventually persuade the person making the “absurd” post to see it that way, nor did it matter that no one else might have cared about the post or be influenced by my countering it. Later I could come to realize that I was unwittingly drawn into a game, to satiate the craving for attention in a context in which attention has become commoditized by social media entrepreneurs who have made it a currency for most users. I realized that much of the conversation in the social media, is not, by any means, an affirmation of the usefulness of social media, it is not even the useful use of the social media. Is there something as meaningful use of social media? Afterall, “useful” in this quicksand of relativism of post-modernist thinking, is mere standpoint, not meaning the same thing for different people.
There is an introspection that is actually taking place at a much broader level that poses the question around meaningful access to digital technology in general: what does it means to talk about meaningful access to the internet? This question is being asked at various levels such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Is connectivity an end or a means to an end? If it is a means as is the overwhelming position, then interrogating the quality of this access is as critical. Or even more, as the access itself.
You are right therefore to think that we are already at a post era, whence access itself has to be problematized. Yes, in Nigeria, as in many African and developing countries, there are millions, indeed billions who are not connected or have no access to the internet. In the specific case of Nigeria, we are told that an estimated proportion of between 35-50% of Nigerians do not have access to the internet, depending on what is being measured as access or who is doing the measurement. But even if we take the lower number, that translates to about 70 million Nigerians having no access to the internet, a very large number of our people.
But even among those who have access, we have to think of those who can use the internet to drive its full potentials and those who have merely a bare pipe that lacks content as in zero-rated internet or has no capabilities as those using features phones. Two things determine whether you have a potentially useful productive access to the internet or not. One is the level of technology that delivers your connectivity. Generally, the useful internet access starts with 3G. If your mobile access is 2G, then you are not there. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), 3G has covered about 89% of the country, with the remaining people covered only with 2G. Those without connectivity are classified as either underserved or unserved are grouped into 114 clusters of with a population close to 30 million people.
The second factor is the type of access device you have. Generally, you need either a laptop or a desktop. Smartphone is useful but it not only restricts you but also limits your speed as well as the functionalities that a desktop or laptop have which are not available in a smartphone. Estimates put the proportion of Nigerians having access to desktop/laptop to about 45% while those having smartphone according to Statistica is between 25 and 40 million. Given that most people who have access to desktop/laptop are also the people who have smartphones, it means that Nigerians who have the appropriate access device for meaningful internet are unlikely to reach 100 million or half of the population.
Now what we have discussed only the pre-conditions for meaningful connectivity. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has identified four factors that define meaningful connectivity. These are firstly, the right speed. Speedy is a function of the technology generation you have. While 3G is the minimum limit, both within the International Telecommunications Union, the Internet Society, the Global Internet Governance Forum and A4AI as well within the global digital cooperation, the acceptable minimum speed for meaningful connectivity is 4G. This is what the National Broadband Plan says about 4G coverage in Nigeria: “In particular 4G coverage is only available in major cities and state capitals with less than 40% coverage of the population as at Q4, 2019”. In other words, by government assessment, it is just about 80 million Nigerians that potentially have access to meaningful connectivity.
The second factor is what A4AI calls “an adequate device” which has to be either a desktop/laptop or a smartphone. Again, while smartphone allows one to do a lot of things with the internet, this limits the number of Nigerians who potential have meaningful connectivity as the current penetration of both desktop/laptop and smartphone in the country shows.
The third is fact is access to reasonably enough data, meaning that data should not be a constrain to the ability of the user to connect to the internet. Here affordability is implicated. Affordability is defined as the threshold in which the cost of data should not be a hinderance to meeting other important needs of say food, education or shelter, and typically , it should not be more than 5% of the monthly income of the user, in a county in in which more than 60% of the citizens live below the poverty line of $1 per day, the cost of data is not sustainable for meaningful connectivity. Here is what a government document, the National Broadband Plan says about affordability: “The challenge with this affordability benchmark in Nigeria’s context is, given high income disparities, the median monthly income of N19,460 ($54) is much lower than average income levels of N60,000 ($167) per month. Thus, internet bundles at these price points remain largely unaffordable for the majority of Nigerians”
Finally, fourth is frequent connection which is indicated by the ability of the user to be connected either permanently at will or not having to connect so often. If each time you are use the internet you have to connect, that may take time and you will loss the element of speed, may even be discouraged from using the internet, especially if there is no certainty that within few moments you will connect. The United Nations has also ready declared access to the internet as a human right and that this right as to available every time.
While these elements identified by A4AI define the technical dimension of meaningful connectivity, there is a social dimension, which is what access facilitates for the user. A meaningful connectivity should enable the user to use the internet to access educational content or opportunities, improved healthcare, access to governance and its services, carry out entrepreneurial and business activities and transactions. In other words, it is not about using social media to greet friends or to engage in mere conversations that do add value to these aspects that affect the existential living conditions of the people.
Of the about 100 million Nigerians who use the internet today in the country: how many of them use it to access educational opportunities or content? How many of them use to access medical services or advice and how many have their means of livelihood dependent or improved by the use of the internet? Answers to these questions will determine the extent to which we can say we have meaning connectivity in the country.
Are there things that government can do to improve meaningful connectivity in the country? Yes, many. One is that it should accelerate the implementation of the National Broadband Plan to drive in such a way that it promotes digital inclusion. This should include the rollout of community networks policy for the country. Secondly, it should support initiatives for the local production of access devices such as laptops and smartphones in the country. At the moment there is a huge disparity in the pricing of smartphones with countries that are importing devices paying as much as five times that prices that that are paid in producing countries. For a country like Nigeria, there is additional challenge caused the by ever sliding value of the national currency.
Third, it should deepen efforts at ensuring universal digital literacy in the country. The National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) is working towards a 95% digital literacy in the country by the year 2025. While this is commendable, the rate at which this is taking does not assures that we will hit the target. More needs to be done and more stakeholders such as State Governments need to join the efforts.
Fourthly, government must link access to key development issues such improve access to education, healthcare services, business opportunities, etc. Finally, we need to promote a more nuanced understanding of digital technology and its capabilities beyond just using social media. Social media is an important component of digital use, but it is only one. Even in that, we need to educate people to get the most out of social media and not to spend their hours either quarrels over little things or simply craving for likes and retweets that someone will be smiling to the banks at their expense.