Economic development

The new right to the city

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I recently spent a month in the rural Eastern Cape, for our annual family holiday. On my return to the office, colleagues enthused about how rested I looked, how relaxed I seemed. “Must have been the lack of internet access,” one of them concluded.

“Actually, the connectivity where we were is very strong,” I countered. “That was a non-negotiable.” Everyone laughed, knowing how anxious I become if I’m out of the internet loop for too long.

I smiled too, thinking about the fun we used to have when visiting only a few short years ago. Then, the problem was signal strength – try as I might my phone would remain signal-free. There was not a single bar to be had in my father’s home.

The solution was to climb to the top of one of the nearby hills; and there we would call or surf to our heart’s content, until the light faded or the cooling weather sent us back down.

I’m lucky that in my daily life, internet access can be a non-negotiable. In South Africa, of course, this is not normally the case. According to the General Household Survey published by Stats SA in June 2016, only 9.6% of South Africans have access to the internet at home (in the Western Cape, this figure is 21.4%).

However, home internet access (accounting for 9.7% of internet usage) is only part of the picture. Most South Africans access the internet at work (15.1%), and 5.1% go online at school, university or college. While these numbers seem low, the research revealed that 53.5% of South African households had at least one member who was able to access the internet – whether at home, work, place of study, or at an internet café.

Thinking of how my family and I accessed the internet years ago, using phones with limited functionality, it is interesting for me to note how smartphones are driving internet access.

In South Africa, 47.6% of people access the internet via their mobile phones, and this is particularly relevant to rural households. From the Stats SA report: “Whereas only 2.1%, 3.7% and 3.1% of households respectively had access to the internet at home, at work and elsewhere, more than a third (33.7%) had access through mobile devices.”

The authors of the report noted that mobile access also benefited households in the metropolitan and urban areas of South Africa and that the largest proportion of households in the Western Cape and Gauteng access the internet via mobile devices. However, as we all know by now, data is extremely expensive in South Africa.

Falling data costs would benefit all South Africans – but especially the nearly 50% of the population who use their mobiles to connect to the rest of the world.

Government has a part to play. In her recent State of the Province address, Premier Helen Zille announced that high-speed fibre has been laid at more than 1 000 public buildings, while broadband has been activated at over 900 of these sites.

Of this number, 692 schools, 92 libraries and 169 corporate sites have been connected. Thanks to a partnership with Neotel, in March this year the first 50 of more than 380 public Wi-Fi hotspots offering limited free Wi-Fi will be launched.

The City of Cape Town has more than 250 public Wi-Fi zones offering free access via a partnership with Always On; these operate on top of the City’s fibre-optic network. According to the City, most of these hotspots are located in suburbs and centres that are not covered by commercial service providers, or where the cost of such services are out of the reach of most residents. These areas include Nyanga, Philippi, Kraafontein, Seawinds and Khayelitsha.

A 2017 report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, released in February, predicts that by this year, 50% of the world will have access to the internet; but of the 50% offline, most will be women in developing countries. The cost of data is one of the biggest barriers to achieving universal access. For instance, in Africa, buying 1GB of data “costs an average citizen nearly 18% of their monthly income.”

The report confirms that data costs are falling – but not fast enough.

We need to do better. And yes, fees should fall!

Featured illustration: Quasiem Gamiet

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