Today marks four years since the SEACOM undersea cable landed on South African shores, bringing with it the hopes and dreams of affordable internet access for all.
Since then, it’s been joined by many other undersea cables, all of which have helped drive down prices for internet access in the country. But just how much has the landscape been changed? To find the answer, we recruited the internet’s most famous time machine, archive.org.
Going back to 2009, we looked at Archive.org snapshots for some of South Africa’s most popular internet service providers (ISPs) – MWEB, Afrihost, Axxess, Openweb, and Cybersmart. Amazingly, we were able to find prices, and a few other reminders of what the state of ADSL access was like, back then.
Looking at the screenshots above, taken from the archived websites, is a stark reminder of what internet access used to cost, locally. There were the local-only accounts offered by ISPs like OpenWeb, giving users a cheaper option to get connected. Those accounts only allowed access to local websites and services – a great way for gamers to play on local game servers, but pretty much useless for any sort of real interaction with the rest of the world.
OpenWeb even offered something called OpenBrowse: a product designed to be used in conjunction with a local-only account, letting users pay a small fee to have browsing (but not downloading) access for international websites. A ridiculous notion by today’s standards, and a complicated solution for those looking to save a few bucks.
Another needless complication was choosing your bandwidth provider. Back then only two major backhaul providers were available – SAIX and IS. The former, operated by Telkom and routing traffic through the SAT 3 cable, was considered a luxury. Connectivity through SAIX was expensive, but fast. IS, on the other hand, still had a handful of satellite links, and problematic connectivity. But it was aggressive with its pricing, so users could get IS-backed connectivity for less than SAIX bandwidth.
Four years ago, cellular networks offered data at R2 per MB, out of bundle, a tariff that equates to R2 048 per GB. Today, it’s possible to get 2GB for around R99. An uncapped ADSL account on a 4Mbps line could be had, with many restrictions, for R1 300. Today, a 4Mbps uncapped ADSL account costs R397 from Afrihost.
Overall, things have improved dramatically. Uncapped accounts offered today don’t come with nearly as many restrictions. Combined with faster line speeds users now have instant access to streaming services and can enjoy a bit more of the richer internet experience. Capped accounts are, sadly, still a reality. Years of conditioning have led users to believe that there’s a bucket of bits that’s rapidly depleting, and that each ISP gets a fresh shipment of gigabytes every month. This fallacy has led to a mindset where people are too scared to properly embrace the internet, for fear of expending their allotment..
Has SEACOM made internet access more affordable and accessible? Simply, yes. While the cable’s 1.28Tbps presence isn’t solely responsible for plummeting access prices – in both the ADSL and cellular data markets – it has certainly led the charge, and got people demanding better access. Other cables have landed since SEACOM went live, and they’ve all helped make access to the rest of the world a lot more affordable.