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We are in a world where everyone needs high-speed internet

There’s a joke that says if you want to call a family gathering in your house, just walk to the main internet router, switch it off, and wait. Everyone in the house, young and old, will be there in the next few seconds…

A few years back I heard a senior executive recount the following tale in a seminar I was running. His son had come of age, and the father wanted to commemorate this milestone. In his generosity, he offered the son the gift of his choice. The executive expected his son to ask for the things he himself had been given when he hit adulthood: a suit, perhaps, or an expensive fountain pen.

What did the son ask for? He said, “Dad, I don’t need suits or pens. Please just get proper wifi in the house so that I don’t have to keep using data bundles.”

I commented at the time that the son was entirely on the right track – he knew where his future success would come from.

More recently, I gathered a group of 18-21 year-olds in a focus group to discuss their consumption patterns and habits. I asked them to consider this: when they start earning an income and move into their very first own abode – what item would they buy first for the house? Bed, cooker, fridge?

What did today’s young Kenyans want before anything else, though? You guessed it. Broadband internet. Everything else could wait. They would sleep on mattresses, they told me, and eat out or order in, until they had more money. The internet, however, could not wait.

This is in line with what I said to a senior Safaricom team on the shores of Lake Naivasha a decade ago, when they had invited me to address them on the future business landscape. Data was their future, I told them, and internet access would become an essential everyday utility, just like electrical power or water supply. Our lives grind to a halt when we don’t have power or water, and the same will happen with the internet. All of the things we will need to do will depend on the internet – our work, our entertainment, our daily transactions, even our social lives. Safaricom will thrive, I offered, if it delivers affordable and reliable high-speed internet, fixed and mobile, to the majority of Kenyans.

In 2020, here’s what I would say to anyone of productive age: invest in internet access. Pay for the highest speeds you can afford, in your home and workplace, and on the move. Invest not just in your primary connections, but in backup networks as well.

This was true in January of this year; it is especially true as the pandemic year draws to a close. The digital acceleration of 2020 is off the charts. Remote working, online shopping, digital cash payments and e-learning are at record levels – and most of that will not go back. Many new cohorts of users have tried stuff out – virtual meetings, home delivery, online classes – and they have become acclimated to this way of life and the sheer click-click convenience.

So as you plan your return to the office, plan for greater internet usage, because many of those video meetings are going to continue. As you budget for your home in 2021, expect to need higher internet speeds as more family members stream video and join online classes and Zoom calls. If you’re a hotel trying to bring its guests back, your biggest upgrade (after health and safety investments) needs to be your wifi speeds, because guess what, many more guests will now be holding virtual meetings and streaming videos on your connection. 

If you’re an educational institution, please don’t imagine the world will just revert to in-person learning in full. The e-learning train has left the station. If your government, national and local, is failing to facilitate internet infrastructure investment, then it is retarding your progress and will lose its best people.

Our lives in the coming decade are bound to become more digital. We can all expect to use more and more virtual technology, for work, learning and entertainment. So don’t get hamstrung by weak speeds and glitching connections.

This is not an endorsement of the relentless march of the digital life. We will lose a great deal by accelerating away from old-fashioned human interactions; and we will all put ourselves in the hands of increasingly powerful tech monopolies. There will be consequences. Each of us must find our own balance between protecting the old and embracing the new. We must not lose our shared humanity as we race into the future, but race we must.

(Sunday Nation, 1 November 2020)

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Picture credit: Praveen Kumar Mathivanan