While the scarred pavements left from the early fibre rollout in South Africa’s suburbs continue to heal, many suburban residents have slipped into the bliss of lightning-fast Internet speeds and uncapped data.
A middle-of-the-range uncapped fibre package has become so affordable that the cost of a gigabyte of data becomes almost negligible and connectivity becomes a seamless part of life.
With the world at your fingertips, it is easy to forget that these affordable uncapped broadband services are only available to around 10% of South African homes.
So, what are the other 90% doing?
They are using mobile data 100 times more expensive than Wi-Fi – or are missing out completely.
The #DataMustFall movement has been widely reported in recent years as South Africans are coming to terms with the necessity of Internet access for economic and social empowerment.
There is a big drive to lower mobile data prices which are seen as a hindrance to affordable connectivity for all.
The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has even put South Africa on the list of 57 countries that are yet to meet the UN Broadband Commission’s affordability threshold of 1GB of data for no more than 2% of average monthly income.
To reduce the cost of data and increase access to the Internet, telecoms operators have called on the government for the allocation of high-demand spectrum.
But is this the right solution?
In a recent discussion with MyBroadband, Tim Genders, CEO of Isizwe Advisory Services, said using mobile data to satisfy the basic need for connectivity is expensive and unnecessary.
“Mobile infrastructure and equipment are expensive. The price of mobile data is never going to be at a point where it can be used uncapped by the average South African.”
He emphasised that uncapped Internet access is vital to bridge the digital divide and promote digital skills.
“When people use volume-based mobile data, they use it sparingly. They tend to hold back from exploring the full realm of information and services available to them, and do not develop the associated technology-related skills. People need the freedom to use data abundantly.”
According to the A4AI, the solution lies in the adoption of National Broadband Policies by governments.
South Africa has such a policy. SA Connect, initiated in April 2013, envisions a “seamless network of networks that by 2030 will make broadband universally accessible at a cost and quality that meets the needs of citizens”.
Part of the policy implementation targets include 5Mbps connectivity to be available to half the population by 2016, and 90% by 2020.
Needless to say, little progress has been made towards these ambitious targets.
Genders believes what South Africa really needs is for every home to be connected to fibre.
There is a problem, however. At best we are looking at a ten-year rollout period. In the meantime, the digital divide becomes a chasm.
As an interim solution, Genders and his team at Isizwe Advisory Services are working with communities and ICT role-players to roll out uncapped Wi-Fi in low-income areas, available for just R5 a day.
“We believe that a R5 coin is all that should be needed to allow every person access to a world of information,” said Genders.
Isizwe is currently wrapping up an economic feasibility study for a project making use of TV white space as wireless backhaul to public Wi-Fi zones.
“TV white space technology uses the gaps between terrestrial television to offer internet services. The signal can get through trees, buildings and clutter, and is easier to deploy in low-income areas compared to 5GHz.”
Having rolled out proof-of-concept projects into three areas – rural (Tsaneen, Limpopo), peri-urban (Botha’s Hill, Kwazulu-Natal), and urban (Munsieville, Gauteng) – Genders said that this model shows great commercial promise.
The operating model places Wi-Fi zones at spaza shops, convenience stores, and anywhere which aids in providing 24/7 availability.
Community resellers are given training on technology and entrepreneurship, and earn a commission on the Wi-Fi packages sold.
For this idea to be sustainable, the community needs to be involved and become empowered. “Our resellers receive regular online training material which helps set them up for success,” said Genders.
Community-owned Wi-Fi holds great potential in bridging the vast digital divide in South Africa, which has grown worse since the dawn of the COVID-19 era.
The ability to access information and services through digital channels has never been more crucial.
Failure to provide access to our people is detrimental to our country’s social and economic development, and unjust to low-income communities.