The slow growth of Internet penetration in South Africa has created an opportunity for mobile operators and their handset vendor partners to bring affordable Internet access to the next 5-million to 10-million Internet users in the country.

That's according to Deon Liebenberg, regional director: sub-Sahara Africa at Research In Motion (RIM), responding to recent reports that quote the South African Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) attributing South Africa's single figure annual growth in Internet penetration on the slow pace of deregulation of the market, the high costs of connectivity, and the saturation of the market segment that can afford Internet-connected PCs.
South Africa is currently growing Internet penetration at a slower rate than any other country in Africa, bar the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. The growth of Internet penetration in South Africa has slowed down dramatically over the past few years, with the result that only 5,1-million people in the country currently have Internet access.
"By contrast, mobile operators in the competitive cellular market have worked hard to bring mobile data prices down over the past few years, with the result that South Africa's cellular data tariffs are among the lowest in the world. South Africa's mobile industry has the perfect opportunity to be the engine of growth for Internet penetration across the country," says Liebenberg.
Affordable smartphones, such as the BlackBerry device, coupled with services such as the BlackBerry Internet Service, have the potential to bring Internet connectivity to many small businesses and consumers in South Africa who could not afford it in the past.
"Affordable mobile e-mail and Internet access opens up a world of professional and personal possibilities for end-users who have not had always-on Internet access in the past," Liebenberg says.
Smartphones automatically make consumers think about email, but that is just the beginning, he adds. Applications such as Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo Messenger and Flickr Photo Uploader, plus games and personal organiser tools take the experience to the next level for the consumer.
"Smartphones such as the BlackBerry devices are increasingly being subsidised on lower-end contracts which are making the phones more accessible and affordable to a broader range of subscribers," Liebenberg adds. "Coupled with the affordable BlackBerry Internet Service, these devices are giving a whole new segment of Internet users access to communications, multimedia, navigation and personal productivity applications that allow them to stay in touch with everything that matters at work and at home."