#DataMustFall: Ideas to help Internet adoption in SA

It’s no debate that access to the Internet can increase economic opportunities.

In 2009 already, the World Bank found that low- to middle-income economies can grow by 1.3% for every 10% of the population who have access to broadband internet.

Internet use is slowly increasing in South Africa, and Africa, as internet-enabled mobile phones become more common.

Of Africa’s 1.2 billion people, today 1 billion have mobile subscriptions said Matthew Reed, Ovum Practice Leader of Middle East and Africa during the AfricaCom 2016 conference. And in five years’ time, 64.9% of us will include access to mobile broadband (a 3G connection).

South Africa’s digital inclusion progress is not meaningful

Focusing on South Africa: between the 2011 South African Census and the 2015 General Household Survey, it was found that the number of households containing at least one person who could get online (via their place of study, work, home or internet cafe) grew an estimated 20% to about 50%.

Impressive as it may be, it’s not enough to make a meaningful impact, as being able to receive a 3G signal on your phone is very different to being able to afford access to the Internet, using it.

The relatively small amount of 1 Gb mobile data, understood to allow a productive level of access for most users, is still too expensive, requiring 20% of low-income households’ monthly income, according to Research ICT Africa.

In the context of South Africa’s duopolistic mobile network operator environment, where shareholder-centric MTN and Vodacom are investing a combined R20 billion to pivot their networks to focus primarily on data traffic, it means that without the state introducing efficiencies, neither they nor the rest of the market will be incentivised to react enough for South Africa’s economy to benefit from near-universal internet access among its citizens.

And blocking these efficiencies – such as the pitifully slow rate of real progress to make spectrum available for faster mobile broadband (a 4G connection), spectrum which would be freed up with the digital switchover in broadcasting – creates barriers of entry for mobile network operators.

Mobile data in Africa, too expensive

These barriers are expensive to overcome and exacerbate the economic pressure on households living on very low incomes, and whose members often work in sluggish commodity-linked sectors. Not to mention the added expense on network operators that contend with the devaluation of local currencies, while paying for their equipment in US dollars, noted Reed – an accurate diagnosis for many African contexts, especially South Africa.

In the final quarter of 2016, South Africa’s continued spectrum maladministration saw the Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister, Siyabonga Cwele, successfully sue the regulator (Icasa) for trying to hold a wireless spectrum auction. Minister Cwele also released a far-from-perfect white paper, leading ICT columnist Toby Shapshak to comment in the Financial Mail, “I’ll bet that by the time the next general election comes around, SA will still be squabbling about whether to encrypt digital terrestrial television, the related set-top box rollout, and this ICT white paper.”

A clear and reliable approach to cultivating and adopting good ICT policy is clearly missing in South Africa.

Why not unify Africa’s approach to spectrum?

One way to aid the treatment of spectrum (the radio frequency used to transmit mobile phone signal) would be through the creation of a harmonised approach within Africa, where the multitude of stakeholders involved in the sector sit down and discuss the opportunity this offers, suggested Elizabeth Migwalla, Senior Director, Government Affairs at Qualcom, as part of an AfricaCom panel. “Business as usual won’t bridge the digital divide,” she said.

And, as a case in point, fellow panelist Vanu Bose CEO of Vanu Inc pointed to the firm’s success in Rwanda. Vanu supports a software service which enables old hardware to function more efficiently, lowering costs to service rural networks.

And why Rwanda? The Rwandan government’s “pro-ICT” approach made the difference. “They smoothed the path and we went from nothing to a working network in six months,” Vanu said. This gives network operators a business case to expand coverage in rural areas, where costs are traditionally much higher.

Watch here how Vanu is connecting rural Rwanda.

To facilitate a beneficial market environment, South Africa’s state machinery needs to work. The efficiencies of reliable, rational policy are a giant leap towards a market-friendly environment which, adopted by a critical mass of African nations, may even enable huge digital dividends in single continental approach to spectrum.

* Alan Cameron is a Senior Project Manager at Cape Town Partnership. Follow him on Twitter.

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