The South African government is aiming to provide universal internet in the next two years but is this still a viable plan? About 46% of the South African population are active internet users. Stats from January 2022 show that about 40 million South Africans regularly connect, but this leaves a huge proportion of the population that aren’t digitally-enabled.
Connectivity in South Africa still has a long way to go if digital inclusion is to be a reality. Infrastructure development is essential, especially in remote or rural areas which are largely underserved by internet service providers (ISPs). To achieve its goal of providing universal internet by 2024, the SA government has to overcome some big obstacles, particularly in terms of infrastructure roll-out and a much needed digital transformation of public services.
What is standing in the way of universal internet in SA?
One of the main challenges for universal internet in South Africa is the rural-urban divide. Regardless of income level, urban communities have significantly better access to the internet, including free public WiFi and open hotspots. Outside of SA’s major towns and cities, you’ll be hard pressed to find any open access WiFi. In many rural or remote areas even mobile internet signals are patchy.
The SA government needs to roll-out internet in these outlying areas but this is a time-consuming and expensive ambition. Demand from paying internet users is relatively low, thus attracting minimal interest from investors and ISPs.
Compounding the issues further are other socio-economic problems that require the government’s attention: poor infrastructure related to basic utilities, electricity and water, and social issues, such as inadequate healthcare, education and employment opportunities. The government has a lot on its plate, so is providing universal internet really a priority?
What is the plan for universal internet in SA?
Some would argue that universal internet will help to tackle many of the socio-economic challenges faced by South Africans. Providing free data to citizens could do a lot to raise living standards and bridge the digital divide.
The plan for universal internet access and digital equality in South Africa revolves around a seven-point implementation plan. This includes free WiFi for municipalities, free public access to online government services, digital literacy programs and free daily data for those in need. The plan also includes zero-rated content for government sites, giving everyone free access to some essential services and resources.
The idea is to support job-seekers, improve access to learning materials, enable basic online communication and provide essential public services. For each of the seven points, there are a number of factors that need to be considered and resolved. For example, resources need to be appropriately and fairly allocated and personeel need to be hired and trained.
For each of the seven interventions, clear targets need to be set so that progress can be measured. For digital literacy training, it is not only necessary to identify the key skills, but also general literacy skills and language barriers that might hinder online engagement. It is necessary to identify the appropriate beneficiaries: exactly who will receive free daily data and what are the criteria for choosing these recipients?
Is SA ready for universal internet?
Despite all the challenges, South Africa scores highly in terms of its digital readiness. Ranked number one in Africa on the Digital Quality of Life Index 2021, the internet in South Africa is relatively more affordable and of better quality compared to other African countries.
South Africa has a competitive ISP market and fibre internet is growing at an exponential rate. Digital freedom is good and the average internet connection speeds constantly improve. In the last few years, there has been an increased availability of zero-rated websites, including public benefit organisations, healthcare, public education and employment websites.
With the introduction of the SA Cybercrimes Act in December 2021, digital spaces are now better regulated, giving more rights to internet users and law-enforcers. Internet infrastructure is also steadily improving in SA, with the rollout of fibre throughout the country offering improved access to high-speed internet. Investment into undersea fibre cables have put SA on the map as a digital economy, attracting further investment and generating employment.
SA moves towards universal internet
The Covid-19 pandemic was undoubtedly a catalyst for digital transformation. E-commerce and online shopping took off, as did remote working and online learning. The South African market opened up to the rest of the world, with new employment opportunities and innovative business models.
Despite this, the digital economy has left many citizens behind and the SA government will need to work hard to achieve its goal of providing universal internet by 2024. At present, those without internet access earn less than R7200 a month. This means that all efforts at bridging the digital divide need to focus on uplifting the country’s poorest.
With so many other pressing issues to deal with, the South African government needs a strong partnership with the private sector to ensure that a widespread tech revolution can take place.
When will the internet be free in South Africa?
For many South Africans living in urban areas, it is already possible to have access to free public WiFi. However, the government’s plan to allocate low-income households with free data is still a few years off. There has been no amendment to the timescale so we can hope that by 2024 all South Africans will have internet access.
First, the government needs to implement its seven-point plan, continue developing the necessary infrastructure and also tackle other socio-economic challenges. In addition, its commitment to providing online access to all its citizens will bring about many positive changes to the country and strengthen the economy.
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