Information and communications technology (ICT) permeates all aspects of modern society, underpinning interactions, learning, and economic activity. Supporting investments in ICT infrastructure can help to boost economic growth in all sectors and reduce inequality. Social inclusion requires widespread ICT access, but this is difficult to achieve in South Africa given the dispersed population and limited resources. Despite these challenges, broadband internet access has been a success story in South Africa with rapid mobile and smart-phone adoption. The Stats SA 2021 General Household Survey showed that 77,5% of South African households have access to the internet and that 69,4% connect using mobile devices.
Mobile broadband provides people with a key means to access opportunities that can better their lives. The GSMA Mobile Connectivity Index ranks countries according to infrastructure, affordability, consumer readiness, content, and services. At the top of the index are Australia, Singapore, and Finland. South Africa sits near the middle of the rankings but has been steadily improving, with excellent 2G, 3G, and 4G coverage. Most South African households (rural and urban) already have access to the internet through mobile devices, and these numbers continue to grow.
The GSMA Index looks at several factors including spectrum allocation to the mobile industry, this is one of the areas where South Africa has ranked poorly. It is therefore encouraging that the government and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) released additional spectrum to mobile operators in early 2022, with six bidders partaking in an auction. The additional spectrum will enable faster, wide reaching, better quality 4G and 5G networks, and improve South Africa’s ranking.
Broadband access is primarily mobile in South Africa and is likely to remain this way in the near-term, with the slow deployment of fixed broadband services. The continuous growth in mobile data traffic keeps the demand for more spectrum high. In August this year, ICASA acknowledged the growing demand and published a notice to initiate a second phase of spectrum auctions aimed at operators who provide mobile broadband wireless access services in the low and mid International Mobile Telecommunications frequency bands.
Other avenues have been explored by policy makers to expand broadband internet access. However, the state should be careful not to reinvent the wheel by trying to replicate existing networks. Free fixed broadband access can realistically be provided in some public spaces, such as public libraries, whilst broader quality access at home and work will require continued support of the private mobile industry and ICT sector. By focusing on creating an enabling regulatory environment, South Africa will be able to keep up with the fast-changing ICT landscape.
By Luke Muller