My South African friends tell me that their country has the most expensive Internet access fees in the world. While that’s not entirely true (the UN says this dubious honor goes to the Central African Republic), Internet is certainly not cheap here in Johannesburg. Telkom, the state telephone monopoly, completely controls wired Internet connections, and its services have a reputation of being costly, slow and unpopular. Most South Africans instead turn to the cell providers for their Internet. The usual way to access the World Wide Web is via a 3G stick. This system has worked well thus far, but as smartphones become more and more common, bandwidth availability will almost certainly be an issue. Fiber optic lines are being installed in the business parts of town and wealthier neighborhoods, but in the meantime, 3G rules.
The cost is still steep, though. I pay $50 for 3 gigabytes of data. To put this in perspective, I used to pay about $50 per month for Internet when I lived in Alexandria, Virginia. My old provider, Comcast , until recently had a strict cap of 250 gigabytes per month. For about the same amount of money, I got 83 times more Internet.
For standard browsing my 3G stick is okay, but the kinds of activities that I’ve become accustomed to as a 26-year-old member of the Millennial generation are unavailable. Music streaming takes up too much data, as does YouTube. Skype is a costly endeavor, though I still do it occasionally to stay in touch with family and friends back home.
One of the results of the high cost of Internet is that business that have largely died off in the United States continue to thrive here in South Africa. Netflix has not entered the South African market, and any similar sort of business would be ridiculously expensive, given how little bandwidth I have. Instead, every neighborhood still has its own video rental store. I became a dedicated customer at Showtime Video in Melville, but I had several shops to choose from close by.
Downloading music, legally or otherwise, entails the added cost of what you pay for all those megabytes of data you download. CD shops are still around and apparently profitable. They’re not as common as video stores, but every mall has at least one, and they’re usually quite busy.
I mentioned earlier that streaming music is something I don’t do. Pandora does not do business in South Africa, and any similar service takes up too much bandwidth. Consequently, radio is still king. Businesses all over town play radio in their shops. Highveld Stereo, which plays mostly modern pop, is a popular option, and I hear it somewhere most every day. Radio is also a popular option for Johannesburg’s less affluent residents, and many houses in Soweto and other poorer parts of town blast their boomboxes.
Though it can be frustrating to be without so many of the Internet services I’ve come to take for granted, there is something charming about going to the video store or perusing a CD shop. I just wonder how long such pleasures will last here in South Africa. Cheap high-speed Internet cannot be that far off, and South African society will almost certainly be on the verge of adopting e-commerce at similar levels as the United States