Internet penetration in South Africa is now nearing 20 percent, almost double a previous estimate, according to new findings by research firm World Wide Worx and the Howzit MSN online portal.
The study was released yesterday on the eve of the switch-on in Cape Town today of the West African Cable System, an undersea communications cable linking South Africa and the UK.
The researchers said the spread of smartphones and ordinary cellphones with internet connectivity had accelerated growth in internet use from 10 percent of the population, an estimate quoted by the Department of Communications over the past two years.
World Wide Worx managing director Arthur Goldstuck said that for the first time the mass market was “embracing digital tools” on their cellphones.
“The internet has finally awoken, fully, in South Africa,” Goldstuck said.
Internet users had increased from 6.8 million in 2010 to 8.5 million by December last year, the headline findings reveal, and the base is expected to grow to 10 million users by the end of next year.
Justin Zehmke, the executive producer for Howzit MSN, a Microsoft portal published by Kagiso Media that is South Africa’s largest website by audience numbers, said: “The spotlight will not only be on online media, but also on social networking and electronic services in general.”
A gap for niche media, greater choice in information sources and maturation of online services would emerge as the market matured, he said.
According to the study, 7.9 million South Africans connect to the internet via cellphones. Of this group, 2.4 million do not have internet access via computers.
The balance of users, 6.02 million, access the internet on computers, laptops and tablet devices but 5.42 million of this group also have cellphone internet access.
Zehmke said: “This has huge implications for media and social networks. It means that, in the coming years all services offered online will also have to be offered on cellphones.”
The lower cost of data is also due to an increase in undersea cables connecting to sub-Saharan Africa. By December last year South Africa’s undersea cable bandwidth was 2.69 terabits per second; it is expected to be 11.9 terabits per second by the end of this year.
Goldstuck expected this capacity to double next year and for the excess supply to reduce internet prices and drive further demand.
Technology experts Stafford Masie and Dobek Pater, who were guest speakers at the launch of online publisher IT Web’s Africa edition on Wednesday, believed that Africa was not likely to use more than 55 percent of the cables’ combined capacity.
More than 10 undersea cables are expected around Africa by 2014. Terrestrial fibre-optic projects are also under way to connect inland regions.
By December last year 139 million Africans had internet access, according to Internet World Stats.