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Telecommunications infrastructure in South Africa provides modern and efficient service to urban areas, including cellular and internet services. In 1997, Telkom, the South African telecommunications parastatal, was partly privatised and entered into a strategic equity partnership with a consortium of two companies, including SBC, a U.S. telecommunications company. In exchange for exclusivity (a monopoly) to provide certain services for 5 years, Telkom assumed an obligation to facilitate network modernisation and expansion into the unserved areas.
A Second Network Operator was to be licensed to compete with Telkom across its spectrum of services in 2002, although this license was only officially handed over in late 2005 and has recently begun operating under the name, Neotel. Four cellular companies provide service to over 30 million subscribers, with South Africa considered to have the 4th most advanced mobile telecommunications network worldwide. The five cellular providers are Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, Telkom (Mobile), which is run by Telkom, and from early 2018 Rain (Pty) Ltd.
The first use of telecommunication in the Republic of South Africa was a single line telegraph connecting Cape Town and Simonstown. At about the time of the Bell Telephone Company's development of the telephone industry post-1876, early undersea telegraph links were introduced, first connecting Durban and Europe, and later connecting the country to the rest of the world. In the mid-twentieth century undersea telephone cables were also commissioned.
The network continued to develop through internal financing in a heavily regulated market as international technology developed. At this point, telephone services were operated by the South African Post Office. In the 1960s, South Africa was connected to 72 nations and total outgoing annual international calls numbered over 28,800.
In the 1990s, South Africa launched a mobile operations, underwritten by Telkom in partnership with Vodafone. This subsidiary grew to be Vodacom, which Telkom sold in late 2008 in preference for its own 3G network. Vodacom has a subscriber base of more than R45M, with an ARPU of more than R60 across both rural and urban subscribers. Vodacom, together with the other operators, have come under criticism in late 2009 by government and the public for high interconnect charges. This issue was currently being discussed by the Parliamentary Committee on Telecommunications.
In 2004, the Department of Communications redefined the Electronics Communications Act, which consolidated and redefined the landscape of telecommunications licensing in South Africa (both mobile and fixed). The Independent Communications Authority (ICASA) currently licenses more than 400 independent operators with the Electronic Communications Network License (with the ability to self-provision) as well as issuing Electronic Communications Service Licenses for service deployment over infrastructure in the retail domain.
Telkom is no longer the single operator in South Africa, and faces competition from the second Fixed Network Operator Licensee, Neotel, as well as the four mobile operators, Vodacom, MTN, Cell-C and Rain. However, it still receives criticisms (see later) from smaller operators and the Competition Commission for setting South African broadband pricing in its favour.
Four main television stations are available to the public. These are namely SABC 1, SABC 2, SABC 3 and eTV. Other community-based stations are also on offer, such as Soweto TV and Cape Town TV (ctv).
DStv is currently South Africa's only operating and Africa's largest satellite television provider. The company provides over 100 video and over 78 audio channels, and in 2008 introduced its first HD video channel. Since then an additional five HD channels have been introduced - namely M-Net HD, SuperSport HD, Discovery HD, SuperSport HD 2, M-Net Movies 1 HD and SuperSport HD 3.
In 2008, additional pay-TV licenses were granted to various companies in South Africa. As of January 2010, none of the companies granted a license have begun providing services. However, On Digital Media (ODM), have stated that they are on track to begin sale of their product in May 2010, and that prices will be significantly cheaper than their competitor DStv. In 2012, DSTV now has added 8 more channels all for movies.
Although expensive compared to more developed nations, broadband is easily obtainable in South Africa. Fixed line options such as ADSL, ISDN, Diginet and Leased Lines are available from the national operator Telkom. Recently,[when?] legislation was passed by government allowing all licensed telecommunications providers to build their own fixed line networks, resulting in a scramble by companies such as Vodacom, MTN South Africa and Neotel to construct their own country and citywide fibre-optic networks. Individual South African cities such as Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria are also in the process of, or have completed construction of city-owned fibre-optic networks. These will provide services to city and government-owned establishments, and will act as an extra source of income through the sale of excess bandwidth mainly to companies.
Wireless options are available from Sentech, iBurst, Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, Telkom and a number of other ISP's. They typically provide speeds of up to 7.6 Mbit/s with HSDPA. HSUPA is also available. MTN South Africa was among the very first mobile networks in the world to offer HSDPA services to its customers. Satellite options are available from both Sentech and Telkom.
A SNO, Neotel, has been licensed in South Africa and is currently offering a wireless service in selected areas. According to Neotel, up-take of its services has exceeded expectations, and as a result Neotel are rapidly expanding services throughout major metropolitan areas in South Africa. In 2009, SEACOM - the second undersea cable to land in South Africa - jointly owned and operated by Neotel - was switched on. Neotel have stated that sale of SEACOM bandwidth, too, has exceeded expectations, and will drive the continual downward-spiral of internet prices in the country. As of January 2010, South Africa has over 2 million broadband subscribers. Whilst this is the largest number in Africa, South Africa's broadband penetration of 4% is significantly below international standards.
The first telephone patent was issued to Alexander Graham Bell in March 1876. The first use of telecommunication in the Union of South Africa was a single line telegraph connecting Cape Town and Simonstown. After Bell Labs' development of undersea telephone signal repeaters, the first undersea links were introduced connecting Durban and Europe, and soon after to the rest of the world. The network continued in a heavily regulated market as international technology developed. Until 1991 telephone services were operated by the South African Postal Service.
In 1993 GSM was demonstrated for the first time in Africa at Telkom '93 in Cape Town. In 1994 the first GSM networks in Africa were launched in South Africa.
The first public videoconference between the continent of Africa and North America occurred on 24 June 1995 (2:00-3:00 p.m. PST). The Cybersafari Digital Be-In and Internet Love-Fest linked a technology fair at Fort Mason in San Francisco with a techno "rave" and cyber-deli in Woodstock, Cape Town. For one hour, members of the public communicated with each other via a simple Picturetel system using a 128kb ISDN line. "Cognitive dissident" and communications activist David Robert Lewis initiated the video conference and peacecast on the San Francisco side, and Freddie Bell answered the call in Woodstock, Cape Town. Because of different ISDN standards, a video bridge via Boston was used to achieve the link, which also featured interactive dancing. Organisations which took credit were technology sponsors Picturetel and Telkom, plus Peacecast organisors Unity 95, Parallel University, Vortex, Creativity Cafe and line producer "Cybersafari to Africa".