The Pandemic May Yet Break South Africa’s Internet…

…with dire consequences for one of the continent’s largest economies, which was already facing its longest downturn since 1945. Still, experts believe there is reason for cautious optimism in the long-term.

By Roshni Rangwani

As shelter-in-place directives become the norm, our Internet connections have become umbilical cords. Digital spaces are replacing physical ones, helping to sustain government functioning, white-collar office jobs, and essential channels of communication as unprecedented lockdowns sweep the globe. Given its role in bolstering economies in this period of uncertainty, it is natural to wonder: just how is the Internet coping with the largest spurt in demand in history? South Africa’s experiences are revealing. 

EU Commissioner Thierry Breton’s recommendation that platforms like Netflix, Google, and Amazon cut video quality so as to prevent an overload may validate concerns about overtaxing existing networks. However, according to a report by MIT, this is no more than a preemptive action meant to reassure users. “The industrialisation of the internet has created a powerful mesh of networks that is, for the most part, working beautifully,” it concludes, crediting massive investment in recent years for shoring up connectivity (Heaven). 

In South Africa, this “mesh” is both incomplete and unravelling in real-time. Firstly, longstanding competitive bottlenecks in the telecommunications sector have resulted in some of the most expensive data plans per GB in the world, despite the fact that millions of citizens are only able to go online via their mobile phones. Worse still, even users that would usually have access to a broadband connection are being affected by an unusual and aggressive combination of periodic national power cuts and damaged  infrastructure. 99% of the Internet’s information is transmitted via a network of telecommunications optic fibres on ocean beds called submarine cables. The West African Cable System that carries data between Europe and South Africa was severed at multiple points in deep-sea earthquakes in January, severely slowing down data transmission rates. The ‘safety in numbers’ approach to cable faults that companies apply was unusually ineffective here because their ‘backup’ cables were cut as well. Although a repair ship was deployed in February, its salvo proved temporary. Network slowdowns persisted into April, and experts speculate that a complete restoration may only be possible once China restarts exports of essential hardware.  

In the face of the immediate crisis of Africa’s largest COVID outbreak, formulating a proactive approach for the IT sector seems lower on the Ramaphosa administration’s agenda—to its own detriment. Since South Africa has already lost their investment grade rating from Moodys for the first time in nearly 25 years, stabilising the economy by assuring Internet access should also be a priority. Although deep-sea repairs may be out of reach, domestic efforts to boost access would still be beneficial. Failing to do so could have a detrimental effect on health as well: one consequence of the rand’s 40% (and counting) free-fall against the US dollar is the skyrocketing cost of vital, imported medical equipment. Although there have been rollouts of free e-books and the zero-rating of certain websites (ISPs have been applying a price of zero to data traffic associated with them), this is not enough.  A coordinated response to assure connectivity at low financial burdens, hopefully involving the easing of South Africa’s notorious data caps (restrictions imposed on the transfer of data over a network) is an under-appreciated necessity. 

Internet management remains a thorn in South Africa’s side as it enters a period of flagging global activity, and its medium-term will probably be filled with the difficult prospects of updating infrastructure. However, with several private companies including Google announcing plans for new submarine cables and cloud data centres, this will not be a task its cash-strapped government will face alone. In the long-term, the structural improvement will expand at least its potential economic growth, providing some cause for celebration. □


Work Cited

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