How the Internet in South Africa got to where it is now

South Africa’s Internet access has overcome many challenges in its three-decade-long history, including hard-fought court battles to stave off state monopolisation.

In 1974, South Africa’s first ARPANET node went online, starting the country’s Internet journey.

Then, in 1988, Internet pioneer Mike Lawrie and a small team built the first gateway and made the country’s first Internet connection.

Rhodes’ gateway became an email carrier in 1989, and the campus established a wide area network connection with the University of Cape Town in 1990.

South Africa’s first commercial Internet service provider (ISP), the Internetworking Company of Southern Africa, was established in 1993 and started offering Internet access to companies.

That year the African Internet Development Action Team (AIDAT) was also formed. It compiled information on ISPs and helped share knowledge about network issues.

AIDAT members went on to form the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) in 1996 to combat Telkom’s anti-competitive behaviour by launching a Competition Commission complaint.

The Commission ultimately fined Telkom and ordered a separation of its wholesale and retail divisions.

ISPA was also responsible for launching the first Internet exchange point in Johannesburg later that year.

In 1997, ICASA’s precursor, the South African Telecommunications Regulatory Association, rejected Telkom’s attempts to monopolise Internet access and declared the Internet an area of competition as per the Telecommunications Act.

From 2000 onwards, South Africans started to see the dawn of commercial broadband services, with Telkom launching the country’s first commercial Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) product in 2002.

Wireless broadband started flooding the scene in 2004, including offerings from Sentech, iBurst, and Vodacom.

Liberation

In 2005, Altech Autopage Cellular and other industry players challenged then-communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) in court regarding network licensing restrictions.

Altech had applied for a licence that would allow them to build their own network infrastructure but was denied.

Matsepe-Casaburri argued that Icasa could only issue such licences with her approval. Altech disputed her interpretation of the newly-minted Electronic Communications Act.

Altech won the case in 2008, beginning the liberation of South Africa’s telecommunications industry from government monopoly and allowing voice and data carriers to build their own networks.

In 2009, Seacom’s undersea cables landed near Mtunzini in KwaZulu-Natal, opening the floodgates for international broadband capacity in South Africa.

Mweb launched uncapped ADSL services in 2010, prompting its competitors to develop similar offerings.

Teraco established NAPAfrica in 2012 as Africa’s first neutral Internet Exchange Point and launched a game-changer — free network peering facilities for anyone with a presence in its data centre.

Over the years, as international content providers like Google, Facebook, and Netflix peered at NAPAfrica, it helped drastically reduce South African broadband prices as it decreased how much international capacity ISPs had to buy.

Vodacom also launched its LTE-enabled network that same year, promising unprecedented mobile data speeds.

South Africa’s fibre-to-the-home rollout exploded from 2014 after Vumatel broke ground in Parkhurst, Johannesburg.

Telkom unveiled its uncapped LTE packages in 2015, but limited it to 150 customers per base station due to capacity constraints.

Rain was South Africa’s first company to make the jump to 5G in 2019, saying that the technology will offer a viable wireless alternative to fibre.

Vodacom and MTN followed suit by launching 5G a year later, using a small portion of the temporary spectrum assigned after South Africa locked down for Covid-19.

In March 2022, Icasa hosted its first radio frequency spectrum auction after the industry pleaded with government for decades to release more cellular network capacity.

South Africa’s major mobile network operators said they would use the spectrum to increase network capacity and improve 4G and 5G connectivity nationally. Prices should also come down.

The table below summarises South Africa’s Internet history from 1974.

Early days
1974 Vint Cerf helps South Africa build its first ARPANET node.
1988 Mike Lawrie leads a group of Rhodes students and builds an Internet gateway. Rhodes gets an IP address.
1989 The Rhodes gateway becomes an email carrier.
1990 Rhodes and UCT establish an Internet connection.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers grants the .za domain to South Africa.

International Connections
1991 Telkom is founded but initially refuses to install and lease a line to the US because of the cost.

Despite this, the first IP connection gets established to Portland, Oregon.

1992 The .co.za second-level domain gets registered.
1993 South Africa’s first commercial ISP, The Internetworking Company of Southern Africa, is founded.

The African Internet Development Action Team (AIDAT) is created.

1995 UniForum SA, (now ZA Central Registry) tasked with administering the .co.za domain name.
1996 AIDAT members form the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA).

ISPA launches the first Internet exchange point in Johannesburg.

1997 The South African Telecommunications Regulatory Association (SATRA) declares the Internet an area of competition.
The Dawn of Broadband
2002 Telkom launches its first commercial ADSL product.
2004 3G, Sentech MyWireless launches.
2005 Telkom launches 1 Mbps ADSL. iBurst launches.

The Altech Case starts.

2008 Altech wins the case, and the liberation of SA telecoms begins.
2009 Seacom submarine cable lands in Mtunzini, Kwazulu-Natal.

Afrihost halves ADSL prices from R60 to R29 per GB.

2010 Mweb launches uncapped ADSL.
2012 NAPAfrica is established as Africa’s first neutral Internet exchange point with free peering.

Vodacom and MTN launch Long Term Evolution (LTE) — now known as 4G.

2014 Vumatel breaks ground on FTTH in Parkhurst.
2015 Telkom releases uncapped LTE packages.
2019 Rain launches uncapped 5G.
2020 Vodacom and MTN launch 5G.
2021 MTN launches uncapped 5G.
2022 Icasa holds South Africa’s first radio frequency spectrum auction.

Now read: Telkom suffers big Internet outage

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How the Internet in South Africa got to where it is now