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Beyond state-owned giants: Unleashing rural ISPs for last-mile connectivity

By , co-founder and director, Merge-X.
27 May 2024
Tholo Lerotholi, co-founder and director of Merge-X.
Tholo Lerotholi, co-founder and director of Merge-X.

Introduction: A digital divide in need of bridging

In the age of digital transformation, the quest for connectivity is no longer a luxury but a necessity, especially in South Africa’s rural and deep rural areas. While the government’s efforts to bridge the digital divide are commendable, it’s time to rethink the strategy. Enter the unsung heroes of the internet landscape – the smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Government initiatives: Ambitious plans and collaborative efforts

In a recent announcement by the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Mondli Gungubele, the South African government unveiled ambitious plans to connect 1.5 million rural and township households to the internet by the end of the year. This initiative aims to address the pressing issue of digital exclusion by providing Wi-Fi hotspots as gateways to connectivity.

Addressing a media briefing in Pretoria, Gungubele emphasised the government’s dedication to bridging the digital divide by ensuring universal access to the internet. He highlighted the involvement of 76 Internet Service Providers, many of which are Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs), in the deployment of over 4,250 Wi-Fi hotspots, resulting in the connection of over 740,000 households.

The role of smaller ISPs: Local expertise and tailored solutions

But why should the government pay attention to smaller ISPs? Well, for starters, these rural ISPs bring something invaluable to the table – local knowledge and community integration. Unlike their corporate counterparts, they understand the terrain, the people and the unique challenges that come with rural connectivity. This gives them a distinct advantage in delivering tailored solutions that truly make a difference.

Moreover, partnering with these ISPs opens up a world of possibilities for the government. Instead of relying solely on top-down approaches that often fall short, embracing grassroots initiatives can yield faster, more sustainable results. Imagine a network of interconnected rural ISPs, working in harmony to blanket the countryside with high-speed internet, one village at a time.

Picture this: Somewhere in a rural South African village is Nandi, whose formative years were shaped by the tales of resilience and wisdom passed down by her grandmother. However, amidst the idyllic backdrop, tragedy strikes when Nandi’s little cousin succumbs to an unknown illness, leaving behind a void of unfulfilled dreams.

Amidst the stark reality of rural life, the introduction of internet connectivity to Nandi’s village presents a beacon of hope. With access to the digital realm, Nandi finds herself suddenly immersed in a world of possibilities. She explores online educational platforms, connects with mentors, and gleans fascinating insights into the field of medicine. Through the transformative power of connectivity, Nandi’s aspirations to become a doctor are reignited, her journey toward healing and service propelled by the infinite access afforded by tapping into the internet.

While Nandi’s story is fictional, it really is not for many South Africans living in rural communities, and serves as a poignant illustration of the interconnected challenges they face. Limited access to connectivity not only hinders educational opportunities but also exacerbates existing disparities in healthcare access. Furthermore, the lack of economic opportunities and resources in rural areas perpetuates cycles of poverty and inequality, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to address systemic issues related to education, healthcare and economic development.

Empowerment through connectivity: Job creation and economic development

In addition to addressing connectivity challenges, the government’s focus on digital skills development is essential for ensuring the long-term sustainability of internet access in rural areas. Initiatives such as the national Digital Skills Forum and the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) Cyber Labs are equipping learners with the skills they need to thrive in the digital economy. By empowering youth to become Digital Skills Ambassadors and training their communities in digital literacy, these programmes are laying the foundation for a more inclusive and digitally literate society.

Empowering rural ISPs for lasting impact

Merge X brings a fresh perspective on competition to intentionally reshape the industry, empowering smaller ISPs with renewed motivation to do what they do best: connecting countless individuals and communities for a more connected and inclusive future without compromising service and reliability.

Investors keen on tapping into the pulse of innovation and social change are finding themselves drawn to explore this powerful movement and potential.

In conclusion, it’s time to bet on the underdog – because when it comes to connecting the unconnected, sometimes the smallest players pack the biggest punch due to the sheer volume of the collective. With the right support and collaboration, rural ISPs can not only bridge the digital divide but also pave the way for a more inclusive and sustainable future for all South Africans.

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