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The great Internet shift

The switch-on of the WACS cable, the first in-flight WiFi in South Africa and the latest Internet stats made for a big Internet week, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The Internet arrived publicly in South Africa almost 20 years ago, but it continually evolves and grows along paths that were never anticipated.

In one week this month, three of those paths were opened up or laid bare in a momentous week for South African connectivity.

On 8 May, the first ever scheduled air flight with on-board WiFi took off from Lanseria airport on a Mango plane. The connectivity technology was supplied by the Wireless G hotspot and telecommunications provider, and the ‚backhaul‚ by Vodacom.

In theory, it meant that anyone on board could simply switch on a laptop or tablet computer, or even a smartphone, and connect to the WiFi access point on board. After a registration process and a credit card payment ‚ or entering a voucher or account number ‚ the traveller could not only access e-mail and the Web, but also conduct instant messaging and even voice conversations.

The bad news is that a new generation of morons will be sitting on planes shouting into their computers things like ‚You’ll never guess where I’m phoning from‚ and ‚Can you hear me now? And now? Sorry, I’ve got a bad signal!‚

During the test flight, around a 100 technology media types on board tried to connect simultaneously, and the connection crashed under the load. Because the total capacity of the current system is about 8Mbps to a single aircraft, each user is limited to a 256Kbps link, with ‚bursts‚ up to 1Mbps. So as long as no more than a dozen or so are trying to connect at once, it should work fine for basic purposes. That limitation, hopefully, will discourage the peril of phones on a plane.

The day after the flight, World Wide Worx released the headline findings of its

Internet Access in South Africa 2012 study, which was backed by the howzit MSN online portal.

The study showed that the South African Internet user base had grown from 6,8-million in 2010 to 8,5-million at the end of 2011 ‚ no less than 25% growth. Moreover, this strong growth would continue during 2012, and the Internet user base is expected to pass the 10-million mark by the end of the year.

Said Justin Zehmke, Executive Producer of howzit MSN: ‚These findings are a powerful signal that the demand for online content in South Africa is likely to explode in the coming years. As the market grows and matures, we will see a greater choice in information sources and a maturation of online services.‚

These numbers also show that the Internet has finally awoken, fully, in South Africa. Penetration is now approaching 20% of the population, and for the first time we can see the mass market embracing digital tools on their phones.

The headline findings revealed that a total of 7,9-million South Africans access the Internet on their cell phones. Of these, 2,48-million access it only on their cellphones, and do not have access on computers. The remaining 6,02-million users access the Internet on computers, laptops, and tablet computers. However, 90% of this number ‚ 5,42-million ‚ also access it on their cellphones. This means that almost 8-million South Africans sometimes or regularly access the Internet on their phones.

While smartphones are the main driver of Internet growth, the cost of data use is being driven down by new undersea cables connecting sub-Saharan Africa. The study shows that undersea cable capacity to South Africa at the end of 2011 was 2,69 Terabits per second (Tbps), and due to rise to 11,9Tbps by the end of 2012.

On 11 May, the next massive pathway to that capacity was opened up: the West Africa Cable System, comprising 5,12Tbps of South Africa’s undersea cable capacity, was officially switched on.

MTN is the largest investor in WACS, having committed more than $100 million, of which a chunk went to the construction of cable landing facilities in Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire, to support their networks there.

‚The impact of MTN’s investments in Africa is far-reaching,‚ said MTN SA Chief Technology Officer Kanaragaratnam Lambotharan. ‚Africa has, until now, been a pedestrian on the information superhighway.‚

Clearly, in land, sea and air, a new connectivity era has begun.

* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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