The digital divide is a convenient way of describing the gap between the haves and have-nots in the world of technology and communications. But it goes far beyond mere affordability.
The new Internet Access in South Africa 2017 report, released last week by World Wide Worx with the support of wholesale connectivity providers Dark Fibre Africa, spells out the many divides that make up the dramatic imbalances in Internet access.
The good news is that the South African Internet user population passed the 20-million mark for the first time last year, reaching 21-million, and is expected to grow to at least 22.5-million in 2017. This means that more than half of the adult population is now connected.
The bad news lies on the flip side of that same coin.
“It means that half are not connected, highlighting how far we still have to go to bring everyone into the information economy,” says Reshaad Sha, Chief Strategy Officer and executive director of Dark Fibre Africa. “If we are to deliver a truly digitally inclusive state, increasing the ability of people to afford internet connectivity is absolutely critical, as this remains an inhibitor to the majority of people in the lower income brackets isolated from the benefits of the information economy.”
The report includes data supplied from the Target Group Index (TGI) survey conducted by Ask Afrika, one of the largest market research organisations on the continent. TGI comprises more than 15 000 interviews across a vast range of consumer topics and behaviours.
The analysis of this data reveals that, among adult South Africans earning more than R30 000 a month, Internet penetration is at 82.4 per cent, on a par with overall penetration in many industrialised countries. However, penetration declines rapidly as income declines, falling to 61.3 per cent for those earning between R14 000 and R18 000, 42 per cent for those earning between R3 000 and R6 000, and below 30 per cent for those earning below R2 500 a month.
This is merely the most obvious divide, as one would expect access to be associated with income levels. However, it highlights the extent to which lower income South Africans are frozen out of the Internet economy.
The research shows that a third of adult Internet users rely on their cellphones as their primary means of access. For low-income users, Internet access requires data costs to be taken off airtime, and those costs remain among the highest in the world.
High-income individuals tend to buy data in large bundles, which brings the cost down dramatically, to the extent that their data costs compare with some of the lowest in the world. However, this obscures the high cost of data for the rest of the population.
Education is also a barrier to Internet access, with less than 20 per cent access among all segments that have below Grade 7 education. Fewer than 40 per cent of those with less than a Grade 11 education have Internet access, but it rises rapidly after that: with a maximum Grade 11 education, it goes up to 48.7 per cent, Grade 12 goes to 55 per cent, and of those with a post-matric qualification, it reaches a high 71.6 per cent.
A digital divide also exists between major metros and non-metro areas, and between different cities and provinces. The Western Cape has by far the highest Internet penetration of all provinces, at 75 per cent, followed distantly by Gauteng at 55%. This is believed to reflect the extensive local initiatives in towns like Stellenbosch and Somerset West to increase coverage, as well as an earlier start on provincial connectivity initiatives.
“It might seem like it is stating the obvious, but the other major area that needs work is that of infrastructure,” Sha point out. “The report indicates that a vast digital divide exists between the major metropolitan areas and the smaller cities and towns.
“The former have penetration levels of 67.7%, compared to the latter’s 32.3% penetration. Even more concerning, these figures only reflect the gap between large cities and smaller towns. It can certainly be assumed that, outside of the urban areas, Internet penetration is significantly lower.
“Therefore, when infrastructure projects are planned in the future, sustainable models, partnerships and policies must be explored to support such projects.”
Unfortunately, says Sha, when one looks at Internet penetration among the various races, it is also clear that South Africa a long way to go to overcome the inequalities of the past.
“Over two thirds of white people have Internet access (69.1%), compared to just 47.7% of black, 48.1% of Indian, and 45,8% of Coloured users. Perhaps the most effective way of increasing Internet penetration is to improve economic inclusivity across the board. “
The more people that can afford devices and connectivity, he says, the easier it will be to drive penetration.
“This is vital as, with Africa the continent that has the largest population of youth in the world, Internet penetration has never been more critical if we want our youth to be able to play a role in the economy.”