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Pigeon beats South Africa's slow internet

New undersea cables boost speed and web use is growing.

According to Buckland, South Africa is an “underachiever” when it comes to internet penetration given the size of its economy, because of the country’s wide gap between rich and poor and the fact that the government has been slow to open up the country’s telecom market.

“We’re a country of economic disparities,” said Buckland. Among the wealthy in South Africa, internet penetration is high, comparable to that of the developed world, but among the poor it is extremely low due to years of apartheid and underdevelopment of a large part of South Africa’s population. “That’s a legacy that we’re still dealing with,” he said.

The lack of competition in South Africa’s telecom market has resulted in sky-high prices for internet and telephone services, but this is starting to change.

The Seacom undersea cable began operating last July, linking South Africa to East Africa, Asia and Europe by a fiber optic line designed to carry 1.28 terabytes per second. Other similar cables that are expected to come online in the next few years will also help to greatly expand the amount of available bandwidth.

Meanwhile, changes in South Africa’s licensing regime has resulted in a flurry of new internet service providers, resulting in more competitive internet packages for consumers.

One service provider last month for the first time began offering unlimited internet access at a relatively reasonable fixed monthly rate — a standard service in Western and Asian countries, but not in South Africa. Usually consumers pay for a pre-determined amount of bandwidth a month that is restricted to a certain amount of local and international internet usage, and are cut off if they exceed the specified amount.

According to Buckland, the internet has until now been a medium for the middle class and elites, and outside the reach of the average South African. “This is all starting to change now,” he said. The country is seeing “incredible growth” in mobile internet, he said. While internet and telephone services are expensive in South Africa, mobile data rates are among the cheapest in the world. Mobile phone penetration in South Africa is close to 100 percent.

“That is an exciting thing for the country because it means that for the first time the web has the potential to become a mass medium, via a mobile device,” Buckland said.

But more users online will also mean that internet crimes will increase in South Africa. Internet security analysts Symantec warned recently that South Africa will see a jump in internet crime linked to the World Cup — which kicks off in the country in June — targeting soccer fans booking tickets and hotels online. This in combination with the increase in new broadband internet users will worsen internet security, according to Symantec.

The company explained in a report that “malicious activity in a country tends to increase in relation to growth in broadband infrastructure. One particular reason for this is because new users may be unaccustomed to, or unaware of, the increased risk of exposure to malicious attacks from such robust connections.”