It should come as no surprise that the country that invented touchtone dialling offers world-class telecommunications. Telecommunications is one of the fastest growing sectors of South Africa’s economy, driven by explosive growth in mobile telephony and broadband connectivity. With a network that is 99.9% digital and includes the latest in fixed-line, wireless and satellite communication, the country has the most developed telecoms network in Africa.
South Africa’s has a relatively low rate of fixed-line telephony, with around 4.2-million fixed-line connections (ITU, 2010). Fixed-line telephony is dominated by Telkom, which is listed on the JSE and majority owned by the Department of Communications. Telkom’s monopoly in running fixed-line services came to an end in 2006, when the country’s second fixed-line operator, Neotel, began its operations. Majority-owned by India’s Tata Communications, Neotel offers voice and data services to around 9-million customers.
Mobile phone use in South Africa has increased from 17% of adults in 2000 to 76% in 2010, according to research firm Nielsen Southern Africa. Today, more South Africans – 29-million – use mobile phones than radio (28-million), TV (27-million) or personal computers (6-million). Less than 5-million South Africans use landline phones. South Africa has four licensed mobile operators: MTN, Vodacom (majority owned by UK’s Vodaphone), Cell C (75% owned by Saudi Oger, an international telecommunications holdings firm), and 8ta, a subsidiary of Telkom. Mobile penetration is estimated at more than 10%, one of the highest rates in the world. South African mobile companies are also making inroads internationally, with MTN leading the way: the company has well over 100-million subscribers in more than 20 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The increase in usage of mobile and smartphones has also lead to increasing numbers of South Africans using the Internet. There were an estimated 8.5-million users by the end of 2011, up from 6.8-million the year before. It is projected that the 10-million user barrier will be broken by the end of 2012 (World Wide Worx, May 2012).
Undersea cables and connectivity
An increase in the number of undersea data cables linking South Africa to the rest of the world, as well as market liberalisation, has seen a shake-up in local internet access. While mobile phones are driving usage, data costs are being driven down by the increasing number of undersea cables connecting sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the world. Undersea cable capacity to South Africa at the end of 2011 was 2.69 Terabits a second (Tbps), and that will rise to 11.9 Tbps by the end of 2012. This is expected to double again in 2013. The Seacom submarine fibre-optic cable system linking south and east Africa to global networks via India and Europe was commissioned in July 2009, while the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy), that links countries along the continent’s eastern coast to the rest of the world, started service in August 2010. The West Africa Cable System, Africa’s largest capacity submarine fibre optic cable,links southern and western African countries with Europe. The 17 200km system raises South Africa’s current broadband capacity by more than 500 Gigabits per second (Gbps). Other cables in progress include the Africa Coast to Europe cable (between France and South Africa) and the South Atlantic Express Cable (between South Africa and Angola and Brazil).
The National Broadband Policy aims to address the availability, accessibility and affordability of broadband; the building of an information society; and promoting the uptake and usage of broadband. Spectrum allocation is done via Sentech, and is allocated to promote universal access and service, competition, affordability, competition and black economic empowerment.
With the arrival of several international data cables to the country’s shores, focus has shifted to improving connectivity within the South Africa, by building national and city- wide fibre-optic cable networks. The government, via the Department of Communications, aims to implement a national broadband network to ensure universal access by 2020. Broadband Infraco, the state-owned company tasked with improving internet access and bringing down broadband prices, sells high-capacity long-distance transmission services to telecoms operators, internet service providers and other value added network service providers. MTN, Vodacom and Neotel are jointly building a 5 000km fibre-optic cable network connecting several major centres across South Africa. The first phase of the cable, linking Gauteng with KwaZulu-Natal, was commissioned in June 2010. FibreCo Telecommunications is building a 12 000km national open-access fibre-optic broadband network, which will increase the supply of long-distance capacity between major cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, as well as towns and rural areas along the route. It is a partnership between Cell C, ICT firm Internet Solutions, and investment management and advisory firm Convergence Partners.
Provinces, via their municipalities, also have plans to invest in affordable broadband infrastructure. The Western Cape, for example, aims to connect the 4 000 government facilities and every school in the province to a broadband network, as well as ensure the public has easy access to ICT facilities.