from the edi­tor

Finweek English Edition - - CONTENTS - JANA MARAIS

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.

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