SA’s Digital Future in Serious Doubt

SA’s Digital Future in Serious Doubt

South Africa’s digital future looks bleak and its current Internet growth trajectory won’t support the exploding “internet of everything” and the accompanying devices and digital services that will mainstream in the next five years.

Steven Ambrose, Strategy Worx CEO, attended the International CES 2015 in Las Vegas USA, one the largest electronics and technology trade shows in the world earlier this month. Ambrose says the standout trend at CES was that everything is now connected and every device has become a smart device.

“The second industrial revolution (information revolution) has now reached a tipping point with high-speed, high quality, ubiquitous broadband becoming the third utility in the first world after water and electricity,” he says.

This will see an explosion in connectivity with global telecoms companies setting their sights on a 5G standard, or 1Gbps speeds over mobile connections by 2020, which is a tenfold increase from the 100Mbps speeds which have become common place in first world countries.

To place that in context, most of South Africans with fixed lines have access to line speeds of up to 4Mbps with a maximum of up to 10Mbps, with a small minority having access of up to 20Mbps line speeds or higher. That already makes our broadband speeds up to ten times slower than first world countries.

Our mobile networks don’t compare favourably with first world countries either. Our mobile speeds can be exceptional, exceeding 100Mbps, as demonstrated by Telkom with LTE advanced, but like our fixed line fibre access, it’s only in select areas. The average download speed and coverage is not competitive by any first world comparison and falls below the global average as well.

South Africa’s fixed line download speed average is 6Mbps vs. the global average of 21.9Mbps and a first world average of over 40Mbps.  Our mobile download speed average is 8.9Mbps vs. the global average of 11.6Mbps and a first world average of over 14Mbps.*

“The problem is that we don’t yet have the socio-economic mass needed for large scale broadband adoption. South Africa’s middle class is not big enough and the average usage of broadband services is rudimentary. Thus while the average amount of data per person on a mobile network in a first world country is 3GB per month, in South Africa it is 350MB or a tenth in comparison,” he says.

While LTE is being rolled out locally, the reality is that most of the mobile networks don’t have access to enough spectrum and have not put up enough towers in their network to sustain consistent high speed data transfer.

“The country’s digital maturity is therefore stagnating and is falling further and further behind the rest of the world,” he says.

The Knock-on Effect

Ambrose says the impact of this is that many of the devices which are being manufactured in 2015 will have functionality that won’t be properly usable in South Africa. For example, all high end TVs manufactured this year will be focused on streaming services and will have 4K resolution** as an emerging standard. That’s off the back of streaming video accounting for 60 percent of TV consumption in the US in 2014, Ambrose says.

“TVs shown at CES have streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus on their home screens and are more PCs that they are TVs, with broadcast channels relegated to the background. In a South African context, neither Netflix nor Hulu Plus is legally available yet. Furthermore, 4K resolution streaming needs at least a 15Mbps stable line, which most South African’s just don’t have access to.”

While the industrial revolution was defined by standardising manufacturing for efficiency and scale, Ambrose says the information revolution is being driven by personalisation of services.

For example, wearable and handheld medical technology will offer everything from monitoring heart rates and body fat percentage through to offering mobile blood and urine testing giving you the ability to have a personalised involvement in maintaining your health and fitness levels, he adds.

Not only that, but while more and more devices are being connected to the Internet, they are also being connected to other devices at the same time, for example, the wearable and the smartphone. This trend will increase significantly in the next five years with devices in the home, for example, combining to not only connect to the Internet, but to each other to provide you with integrated data about your home.

Business will change:

The informational age will fundamentally change the way business operates and the change is occurring right now, Ambrose says.

Industries like manufacturing will be drastically effected by 3D printing, with consumers able to manufacture their own items by simply downloading the schematics and making them at home.

“In the near future 3D printing will do to small scale manufacturing what iTunes did to CDs. Local businesses cannot ignore these developments and have to evolve as quickly as possible,” Ambrose says.

This process of change can begin with a company auditing its online presence, together with its related business processes and systems. Businesses operating in the information age will need to place all business information and processes online in order to streamline them and be able to rapidly respond to change as the informational revolution gains momentum, Ambrose says.

“Government will also need to redouble its efforts in enabling the environment to ensure the country reaches government’s minimum target of 100Mbps access for schools, healthcare facilities, government departments and the majority of urban areas if South Africa is to have any chance of being relevant in a globally connected context,” he says.

* http://www.netindex.com/mdownload/, http://explorer.netindex.com/maps, http://www.netindex.com/download/2,46/South-Africa/

** 4K Resolution has around four times more resolution of HD at over eight million pixels (3840 x 2160).