There is a consensus that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) hold great promise for development by connecting people to more accurate and up-to-date sources of information and knowledge.
But in Africa ICTs have been inequitably distributed and as a result, several people are unable to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy.
However, open access fibre infrastructure deployment has the potential to bridge the digital divide.
The use of open access fibre infrastructure is more vital in South Africa, where the digital divide remains a stark reality, despite more than half of all adults in the country now having Internet access.
This is one of the key findings from the Internet Access in South Africa 2017 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Dark Fibre Africa (DFA), the country’s leading provider of wholesale open-access fibre connectivity.
“It’s a divide that stretches across almost every imaginable sector of society, from geography and location to income and education,” says Reshaad Sha, Chief Strategy Officer, and Executive Director at DFA.
The clearest divide is revealed in income disparity. Among adult South Africans earning more than R30 000 a month, Internet penetration is at 82.4%, on a par with overall penetration in many industrialised countries. However, penetration declines rapidly as income declines, falling to 61.3% for those earning between R14 000 and R18 000, 42% for those earning between R3 000 and R6 000, and below 30% for those earning below R2 500 a month.
“This is merely the most obvious divide, as one would expect access to be associated with income levels,” says Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx. “However, it highlights the extent to which lower income South Africans are frozen out of the Internet economy.
“The research shows that a third of adult Internet users rely on their cell phones as their primary means of access. For low-income users, Internet access requires data costs to be taken off airtime, and those costs remain among the highest in the world.”
High-income individuals tend to buy data in large bundles, which brings the cost down dramatically, to the extent that their data costs compare with some of the lowest in the world. However, this obscures the high cost of data for the rest of the population.
Education is also a barrier to Internet access, with less than 20% access among all segments that have below Grade 7 education. Fewer than 40% of those with less than a Grade 11 education have Internet access, but it rises rapidly after that: with a maximum Grade 11 education, it goes up to 48.7%, Grade 12 goes to 55%, and of those with a post-matric qualification, it reaches a high 71.6%.
A digital divide also exists between major metros and nonmetro areas, and between different cities and provinces. The Western Cape has by far the highest Internet penetration of all provinces, at 75%, followed distantly by Gauteng at 55%. This is believed to reflect the extensive local initiatives in towns like Stellenbosch and Somerset West to increase coverage, as well as an earlier start on provincial connectivity initiatives.
There is one bright spot in the data: There is no longer a gender divide in Internet access in South Africa, with only marginally more men than women having access. A decade ago, there was still a strong bias towards male access to the Internet.
“A country’s capacity to connect its economy to the Internet and make these services available and accessible to its citizens and businesses is key to its success in the digital age,” said Sha.
“Open access fibre infrastructure deployment and availability play a critical role in enabling service providers to deliver a range high speed of fixed and wireless internet access technologies and services to their consumer and business markets. This contributes significantly towards the further development of the knowledge economy in South Africa.”