Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Botswana’s digital vulnerability has been exposed

For the last few weeks many of the IT networks inside Botswana have been operating way below optimal levels.

The situation was worse inside Botswana Government ministries and departments.

People coming for services that needed internet were turned away as were government employees who needed to be paid electronically for any of the services, if such payments needed to be loaded off the internet.

The explanation has been that an intercontinental underwater cable of which Botswana is a member of the consortium had been cut.

This cable is part of the internet backbone that services Botswana and other countries that form the consortium.

Now that the internet has been restored in Government – at least partially, Botswana Government or more specifically, Bofinet, the vendor that is owned 100 percent by Botswana Government should reflect on Botswana’s digital vulnerabilities with the aim of establishing more reliable backups in times of a crisis.

This might involve evaluating the entire Bofinet business and commercial model.

Given the stakes, there is nothing wrong with that.

Internet, as we so often point out is not luxury.

It is the backbone of all infrastructure including water, electricity, communication, security – even life and death matters like health.

The breakup of the cable was really a serious breach.

It took long for a public statement, which some people might, with some justification say it smacked of an official cover-up, which if true would be so sad given the high number of people affected directly and indirectly.

There is no doubt that Botswana needs more than one source or vehicle to get internet.

We are moving into a developmental phase where it would be risky, even suicidal for a government to be cut off from the internet even for a few minutes.

And the black-out here went on and on for weeks!

Admittedly, costs will always be a big issue.

But security, including in the knowledge that Botswana has a fallback position is difficult to ignore.

Coming to infrastructure, it is important for our leaders to honestly consider where we as a country as they talk about digitalization and also the knowledge economy.

Botswana has to work at catching up with such countries like Mauritius which is so far ahead of the rest of Africa in bringing its internet infrastructure up to speed.

Countries are already talking 5G. Yet for Botswana there are still many areas that are vital to the economy that remain outside of the internet loop.

It is difficult to see how not only the speed of our internet, but also the low levels of internet connectivity are compatible to “knowledge economy” or digitalization.

If there is any Achilles heel it has to be these two factors.

The ongoing geopolitical challenges posed by Britain and America against Chinese Huawei on 5G do not bode well for Botswana.

Naturally Botswana would lean towards using Huawei technology, because it is cheaper and also offered on affordable terms by China.

But not everything is as black and white as it seems.

America, especially is loath to any of its allies using Huawei technologies.

This is because the United States government believes Huawei is used by China to steal trade secrets and also spy on other countries.

Botswana is already using Huawei technology, but there is likely to come a time when the Americans would like to call time on that, or start asserting themselves using the many leverages that they have on countries like Botswana.

It might help a long way for Botswana to fast-track its internet development as early as now before string headwinds arrive.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

Khama’s flying cries land in court

Former President Lt. Ian Khama, who steadfastly displays naked disdain for the government of the day, has taken aim at the Director...