from the editor
back in 2005, as a junior tech reporter, I was sent to Tunisia to cover a UN conference on the Information Society. A highlight was the launch of the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which aimed to get a cheap, sturdy and – most importantly – internet-connected laptop into the hands of every child in the developing world. The internet will be the pencils of the future, one speaker declared, and no child should be left without access to it.
At the time, this seemed quite ambitious – personally, I couldn’t afford a laptop, let alone an internet connection. Filing stories from that conference depended on the moods of an ancient hotel-owned desktop with a French keyboard and patchy internet connection.
I was reminded of this when travelling in Portugal and Germany over the past two weeks. With free (and very fast!) WiFi available on trains, in airports, restaurants, cafés, hostels and friends’ apartments, work email and WhatsApp were nearly always available.
Frankly, it’s a bit depressing to be back. Like our tech writer Lloyd Gedye, I’m also still waiting for fibre to finally be installed at my house (see page 43). Few public places offer free WiFi, and when they do, the usage limit is set so low that it is hardly worth the trouble of registering for it. And so I remain reliant on mobile data, which admittedly has become exponentially cheaper since 2005, but remains unaffordable for millions of South Africans.
A 2016 study by Strategy& on behalf of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative found that 3.2bn people use the internet – less than half the world’s population – but many only go online occasionally, with cost playing a major role. Locally, for example, a 2013 study found 36% of people with online access use the internet only once a week, or even less frequently.
Data prices will need to fall by around 90%, on average, to make the internet universally affordable, the study found.
While cost is not the only factor driving usage (people also need relevant content and products online, as well as knowledge about the internet), it is a key area that can be addressed through optimising access to spectrum, and additional investment in internet infrastructure to improve the quality, cost and speed of internet services.
In SA, however, government is planning the establishment of an open-access network to house all currently unallocated spectrum for mobile. Its intentions may be good – it is trying to address market dominance and improve competition – but no proper impact assessments have been done, and regulatory uncertainty remains.
In the meantime, industry players, who are desperate for the additional spectrum in order to increase network capacity, can’t invest, and free and fast WiFi spots remain few and very far between.