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Despite Advances, S. Africa Still Lags in Internet Usage

In this 2009 file photo, Winston, a carrier pigeon, is held in front of a laptop computer which is downloading data from a memory card in Durban, South Africa. A South African information technology company proved it was faster for them to transmit data with Winston the pigeon than to send it using Telkom, the country's leading internet service provider.
South Africa is one of the most technologically advanced countries in Africa, yet two-thirds of its adults have never used the Internet.

Described by some as Africa’s most sophisticated economy, South Africa has some of the best rail, road and communication facilities on the continent. The World Economic Forum’s most recent competitive index ranked South Africa as number two in Africa, behind Mauritius.

South Africa boasts of having the only commercial nuclear energy station in Africa. In 2024, it will be home to the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere.

However, the country's Internet usage stands in stark contrast.

A recent study by the South African Network Society survey - a research organization looking at the social impact of new telecommunications networks and technologies in Africa - found that only 34% of South African adults use the Internet. That’s about 12 million people.

Three-quarters of the Internet users are urban dwellers. The majority of them use their cell phones for access, while the remainder rely on Internet cafes or educational or work facilities.

Sonkabite Reginald Mugoe, a 19-year-old student in Johannesburg, is an active Internet user.

“I am always with my phone, every time I feel like I can get into the Internet, I get in, Google," Mugoe said. "If I struggle with answers sometimes l search for the answers, but if I want to use a PC, I go to an Internet cafe or even I want to print something that I’m researching about.”

There are many reasons for the dismal Internet statistics in South Africa, said
South African Network Society survey leader Indra de Lanerolle. First, home Internet access is too expensive for most South Africans. Prices for mobile data have also been found to be unaffordable. And Lanerolle says language is another huge barrier. Those whose reading skills are limited to local South African languages are effectively shut out.

“We do have expensive costs and cost is a big limitation to Internet use," he said. "It stops some people from using the Internet at all, and the other thing it does it stops people using it very much. So unless we do better than 1 in 3 connected, increasingly that’s going to be a real disadvantage for the country.”

Poor Internet connectivity in rural South Africa and the high prices of Internet-enabled cellular phones have also kept the poor disconnected. Most schools and work places in rural South Africa, where the majority of people live, have no Internet provision.

Lack of Internet cafes in most areas of the country has also prevented access. Johannesburg resident Sam Gina is one of those who have never used the Internet.

“At home I don’t have it. Laptop is too expensive for me. Now I am using a phone that doesn’t have Internet, he said.

And Wilson Ayong, A Cameroonian national who runs an Internet café in Johannesburg, says prices charged at Internet cafes are also prohibitive.

“An hour here we take for five Rand. We give three hours for 10 Rand, we give 30 minutes for three Rand, 15 minutes for two Rand," explained Ayong. "It’s a bit expensive because students always complain they cannot afford because they are students, so at least if the data bundle is a bit cheaper, everybody can afford to go to an Internet café.”

The question is why are Internet prices so high in Africa’s richest country when they are affordable elsewhere?

Part of the explanation is that South Africa still has too little bandwidth for its needs and private providers are still investing a lot of money to increase capacity. That cost is passed on to users.

Some are calling for the government to address this with subsidies. But with so many demands on the public coffers to address high unemployment rates, illiteracy, AIDS and poverty it is not clear that getting more adults online is a priority.

However, de Lanerolle says South Africa’s future in Internet access and usage is not without hope. Close to half of those adults using the Internet are living on $150 per month, he said, a fact that shows that a new generation of Internet users from the middle class is fast entering a space once dominated by the wealthy.

His argument is backed up by statistics showing that Internet usage and access in South Africa has increased by more than 100% in the last five years. This, said Lanerolle, gives hope that the majority of South Africans will soon be online.