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A tale of two connections

South Africa’s latest General Household Survey show healthy connectivity growth, but the full story is less encouraging, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It was the best of stats, it was the worst of stats. The General Household Survey 2013, published last week by Stats SA, offered the happy news that 40,9% of South African households have Internet access – up from 35% in the 2011 Census.

However, this is a tale of two statistics: the connected household, and the connected individual. And the two look nothing like each other.

Firstly, household connections are defined as households where at least one person has Internet access – and not necessarily within the house. So the 40,9% of households – a total of 15,107-million were estimated for 2013 – could amount to as few as 6,178-million people. And that, in population terms, given a 2013 population of 52,982-million, could represent just 11,6% of the population!

That’s a long-winded way of saying that equating household penetration with population penetration, which regularly happened after the 2011 Census, can give a severely skewed picture of connectivity in the country.

Fortunately, the Household Survey goes to some lengths to protect analysts and media from making the same error this time round, making it clear that the 40,9% figure represents households where at least one member has access anywhere.

It then provides a startling – and far more realistic – insight into households with access in the home itself. No more than 10% of households have access within the home – representing a minuscule 1,5-million homes.

So where do the rest get their access? The Household Survey has the answer to this question, too: 30,8% of households report someone in the home having access on a mobile device, 16,% says someone has access at work, and a surprisingly high 9,6% report access at an Internet café.

This means that almost as many households get their access from an Internet café as in the home itself. This is deeply revealing. Internet cafes are inconvenient and expensive, yet remain heavily utilised.

The reason? Mobile access is even more expensive, and often far less reliable.

Indeed, in every country in Africa where the mobile Internet has resulted in an explosion in access – South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya in particular – the quality and cost of that access often leaves much to be desired. So, while a high proportion of people have access, they use that access sparingly – typically for social networking. The real downloading and surfing happens at work and in the Internet cafes.

In rural areas, the household is even more isolated: only 2% have Internet access in the home, versus 16,4% in major metropolitan centres and 9,2% across urban sprawls. The proportions improve for mobile access: 17,9% in rural areas, compared to 37,2% and 35,3% respectively for metro and urban.

Neither work access nor Internet cafes help close the gap: only 3,2% of rural households have a member with access at work, and a mere 2,6% at Internet cafes.

So let’s celebrate improving connectivity in South Africa, but remember: terms and conditions apply.

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