The South African government has announced that it wants to provide high-speed internet to every community by 2024, with free data provided for those citizens in need. The Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) outlined this plan in its draft National Infrastructure Plan (NIP). Free universal internet access is a major challenge but certainly not impossible.
DPWI Minister Patricia De Lille explains that infrastructure development is key to achieving the country’s long-term social and economic goals. The NIP will lay the foundations for the government’s longstanding National Development Plan (NDP) by creating actionable steps and intermediate outcomes.
One of the government’s biggest priorities, in this regard, is to improve South Africa’s digital communications infrastructure. “Communications are the lifeblood of a market economy and digital communications are increasingly central to that,” states the NIP. The government has also said that the benefits of creating a fully digital society with free internet access completely outweigh the costs of implementation.
Universal internet access
Access to the internet is still a major concern in South Africa, despite the massive improvements made in communications infrastructure and fibre optic networks over the last decade. The NIP outlines different types of internet access, including fibre, cellular (4G/LTE) and ADSL.
While fibre is one of the fastest-growing connection types, it is still constrained to urban areas and city centres. Remote towns and rural areas only have cellular internet access, if the signal is good enough. In 2019, 93% of South Africans had 4G/LTE internet access, compared to just 53% in 2015.
Access and availability are not the same thing
Despite this almost-universal internet availability, actual access still remains low. The cellular networks are available countrywide, but the price of data remains a huge barrier to access. Over 90% of South Africans have cell phones and mobile networks have improved their coverage significantly, but the price of data is simply unaffordable for many citizens.
The NIP states that “the majority of mobile subscribers are pre-paid, at a cost significantly higher than for postpaid. For example, in 2020, the cost of 1GB prepaid data was about R100 to R120 – more than double that for postpaid data at R40 to R79.”
The plan for free internet
Initially, the government hoped to provide 90% of the population with a 5Mbps internet connection by 2020. However, now the NIP has stated a more ambiguous action plan. It claims that its digital infrastructure goals are achievable, but only through public-private cooperation.
To achieve its vision of universal free internet access by the end of 2024, the NIP recommends that high-speed broadband be fully accessible to all citizens. This will require private network providers to penetrate every community and install the necessary infrastructure.
The government will work alongside these private companies and they will also consider free data for low-income users. While this plan is commendable, the timeline may be too tight to be achieved. However, it’s very encouraging that the government acknowledges the importance of universal internet access and a digital society. For more information about our fibre offerings or to get a quote for an internet upgrade, please contact us today or check if we’re connected to your address.