Mangwe: Erratic Internet Connectivity Stalls Adaptation to COVID-19 Lifestyle

With a poor internet connection, the new normal which requires a digital lifestyle is not accessible to Mangwe residents.

“To access Internet connectivity for my zoom meetings, I have to climb a mountain and use my Botswana mobile number,” says Gilbert Masuku as he explains the network challenges in Mangwe. “Alternatively, I travel to Plumtree town.”

An investigation by The Citizen Bulletin has established that all local mobile services providers have poor network coverage in the district because of few base stations, forcing villagers to rely on Botswana telecoms companies such as Mascom Wireless.

In 2016, the government gazetted Statutory Instrument (S.I.) 137 of 2016 making it compulsory for telecommunications operators to share infrastructure such as base stations to ensure 100% per cent network coverage to all Zimbabweans, even in far remote areas such as Mangwe.

However, five years on, the lack of enabling telecoms infrastructure in the district is still to blame for poor network connectivity, a situation that has seen students there missing e-learning at a time when they are expected to be hooked on e-platforms for their studies.

“Imagine we are still on 2G, we cannot even download WhatsApp applications and later on newsletters which are more than 3 megabytes. There is no e-learning taking place here,” says Masuku, who preferred not to use his real name.

Recently, Members of Parliament debated on the lack of connectivity in remote areas as they confirmed that e-learning is non-existent in most rural areas.In early June, Mangwe legislator, Hlalani Mguni told Parliament that information technology gadgets are of little use due to network challenges in some parts of her constituency.

“I want to say there are still areas where this technology cannot be used because these areas are using networks from Botswana. So, this method is disturbing learners” Mguni is quoted as having said in the Parliamentary Hansard of June 10. The Hansard carries minute detail of proceedings in Parliament.

“Pupils cannot access the internet at all. I can give an example of e-learning — when the Ministry of Health advertised, people failed to apply because there is no Net-One booster, so people failed to apply to go for nursing training,” says Mguni.

“I also want to request that the Government should try to restore network services such as NetOne and Telecel to the affected areas so that learners in the area can be assisted and catch up with other learners in this whole nation. We all know that educating children is educating a nation,” added Mguni.

Rural teacher unions have in the past indicated that beneficiaries of the e-learning model have been children of the elites who have unlimited, and sometimes free access to the Internet.

Another legislator, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga says with digitalization, stigma suffered by pregnant pupils can be reduced.

Teenage pregnancies spiked during the COVID-19 induced lockdown that first came into effect in March last year, a situation that resulted in most school-going girls dropping out of school. Official statistics show that a total of 4 959 teenagers fell pregnant between January and February this year. The government ruled that pregnant girls could continue with education in a classroom setup, however, there is still stigma attached to it.

“If we deal with the issue of digitalization we may actually be able to address this increasing phenomenon that we saw with COVID-19 where a number of our girls got pregnant during the lockdown,” Misihairabwi-Mushonga says.

“If e-learning is expanded and is given to circumstances where you are giving the pregnant girls an opportunity to learn while they are at home and they just come into school to write their exams, you are also dealing with the issues of stigma. So, the issue around e-learning and digitalization is crucial”.

Learners in Mangwe also struggle to access radio lessons as the current national radio station is out of reach.

The local radio signal is also unavailable due to a lack of enabling infrastructure, forcing villagers to switch to Botswana radio broadcasts for information, and there is hardly any news on Zimbabwe, particularly radio lessons.

Added Masuku: “We once thought of petitioning the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies, Postal and Courier Services on the issue but suspended the plan. We feel it’s time to pursue it further.”

Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights (MIRH) coordinator, Khumbulani Maphosa, believes that the current online education system, though inevitable due to the Covid19 pandemic, is exclusive to children from poor backgrounds and communities without frequency or reception.

“There is a serious need for urgent devolution of power to enable provincial and local authorities to tailor-make education in emergency programs to fit the needs of the localities. Devolution of power is the vehicle for human rights protection and promotion – especially right to education for children,” Maphosa argued.

However, the non-connectivity concerns come as the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) director-general Gift Machengete, in his first-quarter report says the high internet usage came with the high consumption from schools and companies.

“Mobile Internet and data traffic increased by 29.9% to 21,865 Terabytes in the first quarter of 2021 from 16,834Terabytes recorded in the fourth quarter of 2020.”

“Internet and data traffic are expected to continue growing due to the increased adoption of e-learning, telecommuting, and e-conferencing,” Machengete said.

Source: The Citizen Bulletin

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