South Africa's Internet population is expected to grow as much in the next five years as it has in the 15 years since the Internet became commercially available in South Africa.
This is among the startling conclusions contained in the Internet Access in South Africa 2008 report, released yesterday by World Wide Worx.
The report shows that the number of Internet users in South Africa grew by 12,5% to 4,6-million in 2008 – the first time since 2001 it has grown by more than 8%. The increased growth rate is expected to continue for the next five years, taking the Internet user population to the 9-million mark by 2014.
"Four major factors will drive this growth," says Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx. ""he first and most obvious development is the arrival of a new undersea telecommunications cable at the end of June.
"It will increase South Africa's maximum international bandwidth fivefold, and the actual capacity that was available until the end of last year will increase 30-fold. It will gradually bring down the cost and increase the capacity available to consumers and business – but not overnight."
The second factor is the granting of telecommunications licences to all Internet service providers who wish to upgrade existing licences, allowing them to build their own networks.
"While we won't see even one-tenth of the 600 existing ISPs setting up networks, enough of them will emerge from under the radar to give consumers and business a new world of choice," says Goldstuck.
These networks will be able to take advantage of the new undersea cable, which will allow service providers to buy bandwidth capacity at wholesale prices and repackage and resell it as they wish. This means that the new generation of service providers will be able to introduce business models that were never possible before.
The third factor is the rapid rate at which small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are migrating from slow dial-up connections to faster ADSL lines.
"The impact of these lines goes much further than merely the number of small businesses that connect," says Goldstuck. "Our research shows that every SME using ADSL is connecting anywhere between one and 20 additional individuals to the Internet. This means that SMEs have taken over from large businesses as the biggest driver of Internet access in South Africa."
The fourth factor is the growth of Internet access via cell phones. However, warns the report, this is not yet as big a factor as media hype suggests.
"The cell phone right now is a very crude device for accessing the Internet," says Goldstuck. "We will need to see great improvements in both usability and people's ability to use advanced features on their cell phones, and that will take another few years."
The report also covers the prospects for as many as seven new undersea cables planned for the next three years, new trends in connecting schools and universities, the dramatic evolution of wireless broadband technology, and the extent to which other African countries have overtaken South Africa.