In Africa, as in the rest of the world, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are set to transform society. This will deliver growth and prosperity based on greater inclusion, social cohesion and environmental sustainability. What was once technological infrastructure will become social infrastructure – seamless, intuitive and integral, connecting not just people but communities, systems, processes and intelligence.

New opportunities will emerge for people to collaborate, innovate and participate in ways that positively impact their lives and in turn the world. Mobile broadband in particular has huge potential for Africa, with its large and young population, vast landmass and limited infrastructure.

While the past few decades of ICT progress have been promising, this has only laid the foundation for what is yet to come. Across the continent today, infrastructure development continues, primarily focused on one of its most basic capabilities – connecting people and places.

This is a worthy goal being taken on by private industry. However, it fails to take into account technology’s significant potential to drive long-term inclusive and sustainable social and economic development on the continent. As such, on its own it will not deliver the outcomes required to put the African continent on a path to prosperity.

Universal broadband access connects people to information and services. Achieving universal access will bring about opportunities to create and deliver goods and services at lower fiscal and environmental costs than traditional methods.

For ICT to truly achieve its potential, it is imperative that governments and policy-makers methodically collaborate with private industry to create the right type of ecosystem. We particularly need to put in place well-defined national broadband plans and forums where partnerships among stakeholders are explored and enhanced. Policy must be inclusive and provide a clear vision that favourably positions Africans as global citizens.

The challenge that many regulators face is not necessarily an unwillingness to create these plans, but often a limitation of resources and competing priorities. It also takes a long time to progress from creating a policy to passing it into law, and more time still to implement new laws. Technological innovation happens at breakneck speed, and policy can’t keep up.

In addition, misconceptions about the scalability, long-term possibilities and potential impact of various technologies have long-term repercussions. Technologies that are harmonized and deployed globally benefit from economies of scale and interoperability. As such, it is imperative that key ICT stakeholders work with policy-makers to ensure they understand the implications of the policies they are putting in place, including, for example, spectrum allocation after 2020.

While it is the responsibility of governments to develop broadband policies and regulations that support their wider goals, partnerships with private enterprise can ensure the efficacy of these plans, as private sector players have a unique insight into the intricacies of various industries. This is important, as broadband plans should not focus solely on the supply side, covering issues such as spectrum, licensing, rights of way, and base station emissions. An effective plan must also address the demand side, which facilitates the development of the entire system – such as solutions for e-government, education, health services and utilities.

Effective broadband policies and regulations translate into market growth in the long term. When countries implement broadband plans supported by aligned policies and regulations, this creates a dynamic business environment in which service providers can collaborate and compete. Take the case of mobile money in Kenya, lauded as a success story globally – it is the result of the right type of legal and regulatory framework, which helped create a vibrant ecosystem and encouraged private sector investment.

It is hard to overstate the impact ICT could have on people’s lives in Africa. It could bring about social inclusion, expand access to knowledge, financial services and healthcare, create new business opportunities, and provide more consumer choice. ICT really could transform the continent.

But it’s only when everyone involved – governments, policy-makers, the private sector, industry experts – works together that we can maximize the opportunities. If we manage to do that, there is no limit to what can be accomplished.

The World Economic Forum on Africa 2015 takes place in Cape Town, South Africa from 3-5 June. 

Author: Fredrik Jejdling is President and Regional Head for Sub-Saharan Africa at Ericsson

Image: Azeez Agoro (2nd L) works with his friends on a laptop computer to upload music tracks and video clips to the mobile phones of customers who cannot afford their own computers in the Obalende district of Lagos May 20, 2010. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye