There’s no doubt that access to the internet has become a basic requirement for life in the modern world, and yet South Africa still lags woefully behind many of our international counterparts in terms of connectivity. Thankfully, our nation is catching on to the benefits of a cyber-active population, and with fibre rollout, LTE coverage, and free Wi-Fi hotspots popping up across the country, we are slowly finding our way out of our digital dark age.
Of course, high speed internet infrastructure – particular fibre broadband – is costly and time-consuming to install, which means those rollouts are limited to fairly specific areas, for now. What appears to be some serious competition between private fibre broadband suppliers and telecoms giant, Telkom, is driving expansion faster than some may have predicted, however.
“It’ll be a long time before all of South Africa has access to high speed broadband,” says Bill Rawson, Chairman of the Rawson Property Group. “For now, service providers seem to be concentrating on upmarket suburbs, where an on-the-ground presence may offer a host of other future opportunities beyond mere broadband supply.”
One look at Telkom’s fibre coverage map confirms Rawson’s observations, with the highest concentrations of fibre availability showing up in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria, and a clear focus on wealthier neighbourhoods.
“In Cape Town, the affluent Southern Suburbs have excellent – and growing – coverage, with other hotspots in luxury areas like the Atlantic Seaboard and Hout Bay,” says Rawson. “Joburg’s fibre network is centred around the upmarket hubs of Rosebank, Sandton and Bryanston, while Pretoria’s luxury suburbs of Groenkloof, Monument Park and Faerie Glen have the most comprehensive coverage.”
Durban, too, has a clear leaning towards fibre provision for affluent suburbanites, with active zones in Umhlanga, Westville and the Upper Highway area.
For many of our population, however, physical broadband connections aren’t really an optimal solution.
“A huge proportion of the South African population accesses the internet primarily from a mobile device,” says Rawson, “and so high-speed wireless solutions like LTE are arguably a far better option for a lot of people.”
At present, LTE networks are clustered in similar – if more widely-spread – patterns to fibre, and are really only available in the major metropolises. Basic mobile internet access like 2G and 3G, however, is dramatically more comprehensive across most of the country.
“Unfortunately, we’re still light-years away from national high-speed mobile coverage,” says Rawson, “but having access to some form of mobile connection is a start, at least. Assuming you can afford the network subscription, of course.”
Affordability will always be a hindrance to internet access, putting our poorer citizens at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to access to information. It is for this reason that free broadband Wi-Fi hotspots have become a major focus in municipal government.
“Free Wi-Fi hotspots are a fantastic initiative,” says Rawson, “although there needs to be a focus on rural communities as well. So far, just like all other high-speed internet services, availability of free Wi-Fi seems to be largely limited to urban areas.”
Around 2100 public hotspots are already reported to be operational, countrywide, although nearly 80% of those are located in South Africa’s commercial centre, Gauteng. The City of Tshwane is leading the crowd in that province, although Johannesburg is hot on its heels with over 400 active hotspots and more on the cards.
Down south, Cape Town’s hotspot numbers are a little lower, sitting at around 275 at present, with 60 more zones planned within the next year.
“What is promising is the fact that the free hotspots are being concentrated in areas that have been neglected by commercial service providers, or where your average resident cannot afford the costs associated with acquiring private access,” says Rawson. “If we can see that happening outside our major metropolises as well, bringing better connectivity and access to information to our rural communities, it’ll be a very positive step for our country as a whole.”
For now, high-speedbroadband may still be the territory of the wealthier few, but a little luck and a little time could see tides turning towards a different, more inclusive model.