There is no want for topics today that concern South Africa. Race, the economy, our president’s naked emperor tendencies — these are all important. It is, in fact, refreshing to see all that discourse. In our most cynical moments we complain how the country is going backwards. But in many ways it is not; it’s just the national sport of complaining remains as strong as ever.
Perhaps you disagree, and that’s fine. But at least we’re talking. Only, we don’t talk enough about a rather specific and immediate challenge: broadband access.
It does come up often — usually on sites filled with well-to-do middle-class types who are pining for those unabridged speeds our developed world peers enjoy. Sadly, that means the conversation around connectivity tends to have two themes: how is my mobile carrier screwing me and why don’t I have fibre yet?
Meanwhile, vast swathes of our society are nowhere near that. They may now own smartphones and can get a little bit of online pleasure through slightly lower data fees, but they are nowhere close to what the minority of more well-off South Africans experience. My parents, who putter along quite happily on a meagre 1Mbit/s ADSL line, have it better than most of the country.
The majority of South Africans suffer Internet that isn’t even comparable to the bad old dial-up modem days. This needs to change. Yet those in tech circles don’t seem concerned. Even worse, the conversation outside of tech circles is nonexistent.
How often do you even hear talk radio or see columns in newspapers bemoaning the utter dismal state of local broadband? Now, how often are those conversations not about data expiration or the proliferation of fibre?
Not often at all, and yet it is one of our most pressing needs. We’ve all seen the broadband-to-GDP growth stats, the impact of social media and so on. We know broadband is a very big deal and the growing barrier defining the haves from the have-nots.
We just don’t talk about how poor people have a better chance getting snail mail on time than affordable, decent, life-altering broadband. Forget the pie-in-the-sky standards. We can’t assume that just because someone has a device capable of connecting at 3G speeds that they now enjoy 5Mbit/s Internet. You can give me a Maybach, but if I can’t afford the fuel, I’m still walking everywhere.
So, what can be done?
Mobile broadband is easily the medium with the most reach and has the biggest penetration. New figures for South Africa from the Mobile Marketing Association show that there are more than 19m smartphone users in the country, projecting a three quarter Internet penetration within three years. It’s a big audience, but can they afford the data? I think not: already a few years ago stories circulated of how people choose between data and feeding themselves.
Data still costs a lot. You can get 1GB of ADSL data for R5, yet pay R99 for the same on mobile (and that’s a good price). A gigabyte is not a lot and I don’t see the average hand-to-mouth South African realistically investing in enough data to make broadband a lifestyle changer. It’s like someone has electricity that they only get to use for an hour a day.
But I want to emphasise that this is not all greed (though a lot is). Mobile companies run antiquated business models designed to syphon voice and SMS revenues. Data offers a lot less in terms of margins and the complex machinery that dictates corporations won’t easily abide a radical shift towards far cheaper prices.
So, what about fibre, everyone’s darling? If aliens were to scrutinise our headlines, fibre must look like a revolution. But even optimistic projections see fibre only matching ADSL penetration in a few years. That’s a million connections — 5% of mobile penetration.
Fibre has huge capacity, so why not attach wireless hotspots to fibre backbones and deploy a pay-per-use model in densely populated areas such as our numerous townships?
Alas, this is not entirely practical. Backhaul to data exchanges — the hubs of Internet transfers — costs a lot of money and I’m told most exchanges reside around more affluent areas. This is not snobbery — affluent areas also tend to be close to large commercial areas and business is the big whale for fibre providers. Many fibre ISPs don’t even consider residential fibre as a big deal yet. So fibre services essentially roll out from these exchange points, because it makes financial sense. Until serious economies of scale kick in, fibre will remain a niche product.
There is a silver lining here: thanks to fibre, there has been a move to public hotspots in malls, taxi ranks and such. But these are still small victories and far from a change in the tide.
That leaves us with ADSL. This may have the most potential, given that Telkom’s copper network is vast and presumably paid for. Even a backwater in the middle of the Karoo has some kind of copper infrastructure running through it. I had hoped Telkom would slash its prices and aggressively grow its data business from the flat-lined million lines it currently supplies, but there is no indication of that happening.
Another option is to give third parties access to the copper network through local-loop unbundling. But like many, I’ve given up on this ever happening.
Naked ADSL, where Telkom forfeits its line rental fee, is the latest call from the industry, yet Telkom says it can’t afford this. Like the mobile companies, that could be changed if firm and radical decisions were made. But while we can accuse South African business of many things, iconoclastic behaviour is not one of them.
South Africans don’t have enough money and companies are unwilling to stake their future on the greater good. It’s a fair point, but sometimes also seems like an excuse towards favouring short-term gain over long-term thinking. Everyone is waiting for someone else to blink first.
There is one player I’ve not mentioned yet: the government. But to it, technology simply isn’t a priority: despite the need for broadband being articulated in many proclamations, we’ve yet to see any concrete action. Best we don’t even talk about communications regulator Icasa, the textbook definition of a toothless authority. The ministry of telecommunications and postal services appears to be lukewarm about South Africa Connect, the country’s broadband policy. It often kicks the ball back to the private sector, which isn’t going to budge unless there is a buck in it for them.
If the two worked together, change would be possible. The free public Wi-Fi projects in Tshwane and the Western Cape prove this.
Yet I don’t want to pin the issue on just the public and private sectors. This is on all of us. Yes, I don’t know what citizens like you or me can do, but at the least let’s stop pretending we have no opinion. Let’s stop getting excited about fibre headlines that don’t mean anything to most of us. Let’s write and phone in, complain about how broadband in South Africa is a luxury item, a Montblanc pen in a country starving for Bics. Let’s demand it from politicians, from business leaders, from the mainstream media.
- James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications
- Subscribe to TechCentral’s free daily newsletter