By Andile Masuku
There hasn’t been a TV in my home for nearly a decade. When I got rid of the last one I owned, the aim was to declutter my mind space and stop losing countless hours to a productivity black hole.
These days, however, I’m finding YouTube to be as distracting. Over the past several years, I’ve embraced the luxury of on-demand media consumption and become increasingly skilled at personal curation – weeding out stuff that’s unworthy of my time and attention, and actively seeking out especially value-adding media.
Access to affordable high-speed broadband fibre at home has been a game-changer for my wife and I. We are now veritable super users of the internet with personal media consumption habits that lean into the global trend towards on-demand content streaming – much of which is mobile-led.
Many readers of this column no doubt also belong to the privileged African minority for whom reliable internet access is fast and near-ubiquitous.
This is thanks to their having access to high-speed internet speeds at home, LTE network connectivity on the go, and wi-fi at the office.
However, research currently being done into internet access and usage in sub-Saharan Africa points to most Africans experiencing a much less pleasant reality.
Indra de Lanerolle is a visiting research associate and adjunct lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).
He is also the director of the Joburg-based journalism and media accelerator Jamlab.
In a recent Medium blog post called Why Data Must Fall for the ‘Less Connected’ to be More Connected, De Lanerolle writes that for many South African homes falling within Statistics SA’s
middle-income range (between R1?153 per person per month and R2?341), internet connections are “fragile, frugal and significantly limited”.
De Lanerolle asserts that for web users from such households, the notion of the internet as “an always-on web stretching across the planet, connecting all those who have access to it and to the information resources that those people have placed on it” couldn’t be further from reality.
In South Africa the much-anticipated corporate roll out of broadband fibre infrastructure has so far targeted the most affluent suburbs within the country’s major metros.
And even the most promising public wi-fi projects around the country have proved less than adequate in terms of reliably delivering web access to the masses.
Meanwhile, the giant elephant in the room remains the increasingly apparent fact that delivering consistent internet connectivity en masse is hinged on mobile data prices, currently being charged by mobile service providers, coming down significantly.
Given that context, I’ve found new data put out by the World Broadband Speed League rather interesting.
The ranking is based on research conducted by New America’s Open Technology Institute, Google Open Source Research, and Princeton University’s Planet Lab.
According to the league, most of the countries in the world with the slowest internet speeds are in Africa.
Researchers measured the time it would take to download a 7.5GB movie using fixed broadband connections in various countries over the world and found that Singapore leads the world with 55.13 megabits per second (Mbps) while Yemen trails at the bottom of the list with an average speed of 0.34 Mbps.
Ranking 51st overall, Kenya is the highest-ranking African nation on the league, sporting an average internet speed of about 9 Mbps, while South Africa ranks fourth on the continent, and Nigeria seventh.
Some analysts in the media space have suggested that this data might well indicate which African markets are well-positioned to adopt web-enabled audio and video streaming services.
Applying such logic seems sensible, but as long as quick and affordable fixed broadband connections remain relatively rare across most of Africa, and mobile data continues to be a costly luxury for most of the continent’s citizens, we shouldn’t expect to see major shifts in mainstream media consumption patterns any time soon.
This partly explains why political and economic control over Africa’s state-run media broadcasters – such as the SABC or even the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) – remains fiercely contested.
Even in this modern digital age, their reach and influence remain unmatched, and to some extent – taking the dearth of local language programming into account, for example – they remain mostly uncontested.
There’s no doubt that most Africans are a long way away from experiencing the relatively seamless web access and on-demand curation potential a fortunate few of us now take for granted.
In content consumption terms, while some envisage Africans leapfrogging the TV set altogether, Econet’s nippy cable TV and content streaming subsidiary, Kwesé, is counting on consumers making a more gradual transition to a future that’s expected to feature unprecedented levels of web-enabled audio and visual streaming.
However, Kwesé’s plan to launch 60 channels across 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa seems to have taken a slight knock in Zimbabwe where, according to media reports, the roll out of the firm’s cable channel bouquet has been blocked by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe because of alleged licence infringement.
Word on the street is, early subscribers to the service have started being refunded and this has led to speculation that the network has no future in the country because it would potentially erode the dominance of the ZBC and DStv Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile in South Africa, DStv’s dominance in the country’s pay-TV market is under review by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.
It appears the inclusive potential of the internet has done little to break MultiChoice’s monopolistic advantages, particularly with regards to the acquisition and management of sports broadcasting rights.
While traditional broadcasters like the SABC and the ZBC, and even more modern hybrid platforms like MultiChoice and Kwesé are under pressure to innovate or die in the face of web-driven changes in media consumption patterns, they
are all nowhere near being completely disrupted.