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37 000km of Optical Fiber Laid in S. Africa, But Penetration of ICT Services Remain Modest

16 February, 2014

Source: ICT News

In his latest state of the Nation address, South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma indicated that 37 000km of fiber have been laid in South Africa in the past five years. While president Zuma indicated that the fiber optic cable laid by the private and public sectors will be "significantly expanded in the years to come”, he did not offer any details on how this would be done and how this fiber will be used to boost ICT service delivery.

Last year, President Zuma referred briefly to ICT, saying South Africa's high speed network would be expanded to reach universal penetration by 2020. He also referred to the thousands of kilometres of fiber that were laid during the last year but he did not elaborate on what plans the state had to meet its goal and how ICT in general would be improved.
Of the ~300 000km of fiber operational in Africa, about half of it is in South Africa. Unfortunately, the abundance of fiber in South Africa does not translate into the abundance and affordability of ICT services for all South African. South Africa Internet penetration is only 17% according to Internet World Stats. This is hardly different from South Africa’s Northern neighbor, Zimbabwe, whose economy has been in a rut for many years.

In a controversial article titled Digital Apartheid that drew a lot of angry reaction from South Africans, it was pointed out that the South African mobile prices were about the highest in Africa and among the highest in the world. According to the Global Information Technology Report, South Africa ranked 117 out of 144 countries accounting for 98% of the world’s GDP. The report used the average per-minute cost of a variety of mobile cellular calls to determine the affordability of mobile cellular tariffs. In plain English, making mobile calls in South Africa is more expensive than in many countries of the world.

Two of the main advantages of optical fiber are high bandwidth and lowest cost per bit. It is counter-intuitive that the country with the most fiber in Africa has the highest cost of ICT services and not a significant enough Internet penetration to show for it.

It has been argued that government policies borrowed from the past are largely to blame. The onus is on President Zuma and his government to drive policies that are conducive for ICT development and take full advantage of the large amount of fiber in the country. After all fiber is such a terrible thing to waste. By driving policies that will boost broadband penetration and lower the cost of ICT services, South Africa will not only be doing a service to its citizens but can pave the way for the entire continent to follow suit.


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