The Internet and South Africa

South Africa had some difficulty going online and connecting to the rest of the world. But progress to Internet connectivity began when three pioneering Rhodes University students – François Jacot Guilarmod, Dave Wilson and Mike Lawrie – used salvaged and donated equipment to create their own gateway, giving Rhodes University its first IP number and established the first email link in South Africa. That was in 1988, one year before Berners-Lee invented the first ever web page, and in 1990 the first TCP/IP connection attempt successfully linked Rhodes University to the University of Cape Town, after which all universities across South Africa were similarly connected, creating the ZA domain which was officially registered in that same year.

Although progress was being made, there was a series of difficulties that had to be confronted, all within the same timeframe: South Africa was not yet connected to the rest of the world, despite the email link and domain support; and although the establishment of Telkom happened in 1991, the cost to lease a line to the USA was still too exorbitant; all the while, dial-up costs were getting costlier, with Rhodes’ bill reaching the thousand(s) rand mark; and the ZA domain was also giving its fair share of trouble causing “domain storms” – with multiple requests being triggered by unresolvable ZA domains. Eventually, in 1991 the first Internet protocol connection was made to Portland, USA; in 1993 South Africa’s first commercial Internet service providers popped up, a turning point in South Africa’s internet connectivity; and the co.za domain was established and administered with UNINET.

<Why did the Internet have a slow start in South Africa?>

Sanctions against South Africa meant that countries such as the USA were reluctant to, or couldn’t (by law), cooperate with South Africa to establish an international Internet connection. Email was already around in the States by the mid-seventies, only arriving in South Africa in 1989. The apartheid government also placed restrictions on the South African public, stopping communication and international relations, with strict censorship policies on information sharing. The government banned the use of thousands of works of literature including books and posters, films and music; newspapers and television were banned from publishing the goings-on, further isolating a country already denounced by the rest of the world.

Mike Lawrie writes in his account of the Internet’s beginnings in South Africa, The History of the Internet in South Africa: how it began, that their bringing the Internet to South Africa was done so at the country’s most turbulent time, with the government “doing its utmost to control the flow of information out of the country”. In an article explaining the emergence of email published in Rhodes University’s newspaper, Rhodos, in 1989, entitled “Email: A major breakthrough”, it is explicitly explained by the author that email “use is restricted (by law) to messages relating to your function at Rhodes University, and you may not send or distribute messages that are unrelated to this”.

<South Africa connects to the world>

Up until 1993, the only people to have access to the internet (email) were university bodies and academic institutions: matching Berners-Lee’s vision of free access for educational purposes and information sharing. When South Africa’s first commercial Internet Service Provider, The Internetworking Company of Southern Africa (Ticsa), came to fruition in 1993 it released a statement to communicate its intention to “extend Internet services in the region to those who have previously not had access, such as commercial organisations and other non-academic bodies, as well as those in neighbouring countries”; the service provider already had four companies connected to the Internet and advised the public that it was a not-for-profit organisation, based on the founders’ wish to keep the costs as low as possible.

<Remember the Big Black Box?>

Dial-up connections were the way of the day in 1997, with ISPs such as MWEB offering dial-up packages such as the Big Black Box. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, most Internet users connected using dial-up connections which consisted of a telephone landline, a computer and a modem – typically slow and temperamental, and limited the kind of access to the Internet that broadband brought to the table a few years later.

Telkom brought broadband to South Africa in 2002, launching their first commercial ADSL product, with faster download speeds and a permanent connection to the Internet, without having to dial-up through a modem. Soon after, in 2004, companies such as Vodacom 3G and iBurst began offering broadband wireless solutions, moving South Africa into the era of Internet we enjoy and rely on today.

<The Internet of today and tomorrow>

2016 saw an increased rollout of fibre-optic cables throughout South Africa. Although fibre-optic technology has been around for almost a decade, its accessibility and visibility is only recent. The South African government announced its national broadband fibre-optic policy, South Africa Connect, in 2014 and aims to provide fibre connection to every home by 2020, ensuring faster, more reliable, stable, affordable and accessible Internet services. Currently, most South Africans are connected to the Internet through ADSL lines, and replacing those five million (ADSL) copper lines with fibre-optics is both an expensive and time-consuming project. However, research shows that developed countries owe more than 50% of their economic growth to technological progress; therefore the long-term benefits of fibre-optic broadband Internet connectivity will see major advancements in technology, which will contribute to growing our economy.