Nov 12 2009

Will internet ever (really) arrive in SA?

Published by at 5:35 pm under Opinion,South Africa,Top Stories

I want to go all “Schumpeterisch” today and philosophy on the question: what brings an economy, or a sector in an economy, to grow?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself (again), since I got involved in a student internet project here in Stuttgart, Germany a few weeks ago.

The project is a new online music search engine (www.semsix.com), developed and launched (in German) by two 3rd year students in June this year. It made a lot of waves in the local media and so I offered to translate their portal and handle their international PR for them – for free.

A few days after they went online with the “international version”, they started getting questions from UK and US magazines and yesterday they got a nice write-up in TechCrunch (EU edition). You can look at it here:


They did this without any money. And without support. And even without a business plan. They just did it. And, they are not the first German students to come up with pioneering stuff – there have been other headline-grabbing student initiatives.

Why is all of this important? Because it got me thinking about the internet in SA, the Silicon Cape Initiative, “the low penetration of the web in SA’s everyday life” (that’s my opinion) and why there are so few internet pioneers at work down there.

I ask myself: why don’t SA students come up with projects such as Semsix? And will an initiative like Silicon Cape change this?

I don’t think so. The internet “begeesters” a community, or it doesn’t. In many countries it isn’t big. For instance, it’s big in Switzerland, but not in Austria. It’s big in Germany, but not in France. Neither is it big in SA.

There’s a reason why fashion is big in France, machine-building in Germany and watch-building in Switzerland. Rock ‘n roll wasn’t born in England by co-incidence and there’s a reason why rugby is big in South Africa…

Something speaks to the psyche of a people, or it doesn’t. Rugby doesn’t speak to the psyche of the German people at all. The internet does.

The internet doesn’t speak to the people of South Africa. Sadly, that’s how it is.

Will the internet ever be big in SA? I doubt it. One can’t push on a string. So, I’m sceptical when it comes to the value and even the sensibility of the Silicon Cape Initiative. I hope I’m wrong.

PS. Mobile internet…now that may still become something in South Africa and Africa.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Will internet ever (really) arrive in SA?”

  1. Jeanon 19 Nov 2009 at 3:40 pm

    I think your point about the psyche of a nation is an interesting one, though I think you should consider the case of the UK pre-2000 and some similarities it has with SA.

    The UK suffered under BT’s iron insistance on controling last mile exchanges which effectively meant that independant ISP’s were reliant on BT to have access to a local exchanges through which its customer could then connect. It wasn’t until the possibility of faster internet bandwith became a reality, coupled with local loop unbundling post-2000, that internet usage (% of population) more than doubled.

    In SA, Telkom are still the monopoly player, Neotel has entered the market with the promise of their own infrastructure (through which they will hopefully allow other ISP’s to connect through thereby making Telkom increasingly irrelevant over time if they insist on continuing on their current myopic strategy). Now factor in that when you do get a in internet connection its expensive (by both SA salary bands and by comparison to internatinal broadband packages). Your connection also has pretty poor access speeds for most domestic users (I think the max is up to 4Mbps with a usage cap of 10gb and that’s not even taking contention or distance from the exchange into account).

    The reason that, access speeds, capping and costs are all inter-related, is in part due to Telkom but also due to SA’s position at the southern tip of Africa. Untill very recently there were only a couple of undersea fibre cables connecting us to the rest of the world. With Seacom and others arriving over the next two years that should see the total amount of overal international bandwidth “available” to SA increase exponentially, this in turn should apply downward price pressures on consumer access packages but not until ISP are on an equal “connection” playing field.

    I think SA is poised for a surge in online usage growth, as more international bandwidth becomes available. Now combine this with cheap netbooks/free netbooks (provided as part of an internet ISP package for example) and I think we are onto something here. We will never achieve the penetration rates of Europe given our literacy rate but I expect that with the surge in usage we will hopefully also see lots more inovation as new “users” are brought into the space. The key is removing Telkom’s death grip, or supporting alternatives such as Neotel.

  2. adminon 19 Nov 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Hi Jean,

    Thanks a lot for your interesting comment. You’ve got a good point.

    I’m also looking forward to the “post-Telkom era”. These guys have really done SA a big disservice the past 10 years. By not investing in internet infrastructure, they prevented it from growing and let it fall behind the rest of the world.

    Hats off to private sector players, such as Seacom, for grabbing the bull by the horns and are now doing what the Mbeki government should have done many years ago.

    Thanks, Jean.

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