What feels like the proverbial ‘splinter in the brain’ for me about the COVID-19 pandemic is how far and yet not far enough we have gone to get as many people as we can; affordably and reliably connected to the internet in South Africa.
As much as progress has been made in this regard over the years; what COVID-19 has shown is the deep gap between those that have access and those that do not. And this I believe, like all other deep inequalities in our society, is not sustainable and needs to be attended to with even greater urgency.
A December 2020 study of the price of fixed line broadband in 211 countries by Cable.co.uk placed South Africa at position 132 with an estimate of R899 (USD60) per month for fixed -line subscription broadband. Whilst this is better than almost half of the sample cohort; if you weight it for average salaries in South Africa – it is still too high.
For context, the cheapest was Ukraine at $6 per month.
In the 2020 State of the Nation address, the President duly outlined the critical importance of universal internet access and the Fourth Industrial Revolution to our economy and country to drive growth, employment, a better quality of life etc. This is to be addressed by a variety of measures inclusive of efficient spectrum allocation, reduction in data prices, expansion of access into public facilities including schools, hospitals, police stations etc.
And again, in the 2021 SONA address, he amplified the same, including the announcement that the R100bn Infrastructure Fund had approved, amongst other things, the SA Connect project to roll out broadband to the same public access facilities as mentioned in the 2020 SONA.
It has come to pass through the eyes of the COVID-19 pandemic that this rollout possibly did not happen at the rate and scale required as the beneficiaries of the erstwhile public facilities were among some of the worst-hit by the lack of connectivity over possibly the worst time of the pandemic.
In September 2020, Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni conceded that “COVID-19 exposed SA’s gaps in providing universal internet access”. Through the SA Connect – The 2013 SA Govt Broadband Policy – the Government had set an objective to achieve a universal average download speed of 100mbps by 2030. And further; that 90% of the population would be covered by 2020!
Beyond the government’s challenges in implementing the SA Connect vision, are structural problems in the industry all of which inadvertently make it seem impossible to turn the vision into reality.
Substantially more South Africans connect to the internet via mobile device and mobile data (68% in 2019; Stats SA, General Household Survey) than fixed services such as Fibre and ADSL (15% in 2019; Stats SA, General Household Survey). Mobile access for continuous use remains extremely expensive both in terms of data and devices compared to fixed access.
The fixed access part of the industry could be better supported and promoted by the government to enable increased fixed-line penetration, and greater affordable access.
There is a need to create and support a more viable telecommunications ecosystem that will include access-driven regulation to enable efficient and equitable allocation of spectrum, easier network capitalization, fragmentation of the oligopoly, promotion of more providers with easier and affordable access to infrastructure, incentives for local component and device manufacturers, the clear separation of infrastructure from services providers, all of which must result ultimately in increased affordable access to all South Africans.
There is no question that the potential dividend from universal internet access is massive, and we must work in earnest, together, to reap it for the greater good.
- Manelisa Mavuso – Managing Director, Mweb