How Connection Poverty is Killing South Africa

Wed, 03/11/2021 - 08:02

By Paul Colmer, EXCO member of Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA)

Connection poverty is assassinating a generation of young, entrepreneurial South Africans who represent the future success, or failure, of our embattled nation. It’s also quietly throttling the numerous established businesses, the skills, experience and knowledge their many employees could offer the next batch, and the learnings, revenues, and reinvestments they could make to support the whole event.

While some in the industry rattle their own clutch of broadband and spectrum spears, South Africans suffer. The regulator has battled legal action around high demand spectrum and now faces yet more around its intent to withdraw temporary spectrum issued under the Covid-19 state of emergency. There are two sides to this issue between the regulator and the mobile network operators (MNO). While the future of the spectrum allocation may be uncertain, legal advisors most certainly do prosper.

While marketing machines muddy the issues and skew perspectives, entrepreneurs countrywide struggle and go out of business, South Africans ultimately bear the brunt of lost services, the spend of the companies that offer them, and the wide potential they collectively represent.

Profits must be made today if we want to survive the year and entertain notions of staying in the thick of it going forward. No doubt. And things don’t look too bad, as long as we adjust our perspective to suit specific commercial viewpoints and those with the resources to shout a bit. They’re making inroads, people are online, we’re ahead of the curve. Never mind the cost, specifically the financial burden to individual South Africans, particularly those nearest the breadline.

A popular news portal recently ran a survey of speed tests on mobile networks. Downloads between 29 to 51Mbps with uploads averaging 11Mbps seem good. But the survey has a sample of 41 000, fine in broadly defined statistical terms but, hardly representative of what the majority of South Africans are daily challenged to hurdle.

Some service providers also claim connectivity penetration nudging 90%. But that number is at best at odds and suspicious at worst when compared with results from arguably more objective organisations such as Stats SA.

Depending on who you talk to, less commercially aligned research signals somewhere between 36 and 38 million South Africans actively use the Internet as of 2021. Perhaps more than a few per cent short of the total 60-odd million people in the country. Stats SA numbers from January 2021 reveal a hair over 60% of South Africans have connectivity of one form or another. It differs between provinces, Gauteng has more people online at 72% estimated, while Limpopo limps along with 42% having any type of connection and apparently just 1,6% with an active connection in the home. A poor showing from a country where we can offer 100Mbps fixed line to a single house. What do most schools use for their many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of aspirant economic contributors? And the numerous small businesses who would employ them?

How does connection poverty harm us all today? How can we transform the scenario that traps us, regardless of who is to blame or how we arrived at this juncture? How do we realign the ship and steer a course that helps the kids, the nation, our people, and businesses improve tomorrow and offer fresh hope?

Now is the time to be practical.

People must work, we must study, we must consume to support the economy, we must interact with each other, our African neighbours, the rest of the continent, and the rest of the world. We must grow. That requires activity and connectivity. Not this or that type. That constrained view contracts the horizon, narrows our scope, funnels disparity, exclusion, grievance and poverty.

News reports that quote Mark Walker, associate VP for IDC’s South, East and West Africa office, suggest connection poverty-related issues stem from gaps in access, quality, cost, security, and reliability.

Solve those challenges and we help every South African grind a little closer to the desirable outcomes quoted by organisations who have done the research. And that’s good for everyone.

The World Bank and The World Economic Forum suggest overcoming connection poverty will help us create sustainable GDP growth. You don’t have to be a politician squirming beneath a ballot’s penetrating stare to know South Africans desire economic relief.

Who isn’t constantly stressed and pressured by the economic fallout of lockdown, looting, global hardships, supply chain challenges, the vast brush of joblessness that sweeps our nation, strangling our youth and the country’s future? A handy 1.35% GDP bump goes a long way to put an X where you want it and food in hungry bellies.

South Africans impoverished by slow, unsecured, expensive, unavailable, and unreliable connectivity don’t necessarily need bigger backhaul and thicker international links. Not yet. At the very least we need connectivity to be available, certainly. But not in formats that are the most expensive in the country, perhaps the continent, while offering among the poorest qualities of service. Rather, we need faster rollout, affordably provided, delivering a platform for education, business, economic activity to stimulate economic recovery and growth.

The regulator could make spectrum available with its plans to relaunch the wireless open access network (WOAN) next year to more than just the usual clutch of operators. Entrepreneurs and smaller, community-based fixed wireless service providers, who have delivered for decades, who contribute significantly to the country’s bottom line, help millions of individual people, who have successfully self-regulated qualities of service unmatchable by some of the biggest businesses, can transform connection poverty. Now is the time to be practical.

About WAPA

WAPA, established in 2006, is a non-profit trade association acting as a collective voice for the wireless industry. WAPA’s primary objective is to promote the growth of the wireless industry by facilitating self-regulation, promoting best practices, and educating both members and the market about new wireless technologies and business models. WAPA offers its members regulatory advice, technical training, a code of conduct, a forum for knowledge-sharing and business-enablement opportunities.

WAPA is positioned to be an interface between the government regulator (ICASA), network operators, service providers, and consumers. WAPA regularly makes submissions and presentations to the government on regulations affecting the wireless industry. WAPA is tirelessly lobbying for more progressive and efficient spectrum management in South Africa and is focusing on the possibilities of TVWS spectrum for interference-free access.

Media enquiries: Lesley Colmer, WAPA
Contact details: 083-408-0151, [email protected]

Issued by: Michelle Oelschig, Scarlet Letter
Contact details: 083-636-1766, [email protected]