South Africa is host to a massive digital divide – a phenomenon that exists between socio-economic lines that continues to stop millions of South Africans from achieving more than the circumstances they were born into.
A new company, HeroTel, which has slowly come to fruition in South Africa via a lengthy process of acquiring smaller telcos is finally ready to act in their goal of bringing, what they call, “excellent and affordable” internet to all parts and peoples of South Africa, bridging the digital divide.
“Over the last five years, HeroTel has been quietly acquiring over 40 owner-operated businesses, which until now remained trading under their original brands. The plan has always been to unite these companies into a single national entity, which can then use its scale to bring about meaningful change to an industry that desperately needs a shake-up”, says HeroTel.
At the forefront of HeroTel’s mission to bridge the digital divide is its CEO, Van Zyl Botha. A man who believes that his company is in the perfect position to change how the internet is accessed in South Africa, and by whom.
IT News Africa’s Luis Monzon chatted to Van Zyl about HeroTel’s big dreams and their plans to achieve them. Here’s what transpired:
1. The digital divide stems from a distinct economic divide as well, one that has roots in the history of the country. People in smaller, more remote and rural areas either do not know how to gain access to the internet, or they simply cannot afford it.
While HeroTel is offering “excellent, affordable” internet, how does it believe it can mend this multifaceted and complex issue in terms of providing an internet connection affordable enough to be feasible for the company’s bottom line and for the most economically disadvantaged of SA consumers?
Our focus is to be the lowest-cost provider in the market and we believe in connecting 100% of any area where we provide services. To prove our commitment to this, we continually re-invest profits back into building the network farther and wider.
It will, however, have to be a phased approach in order to connect the most disadvantaged communities over time. We have several trials in process at the moment and we are looking forward to connecting everyone.
Right now, we are focusing on smaller metros, towns and farming communities, but as soon as we have achieved necessary economies of scale in the denser rural areas, we can increase our presence to the outlying areas. It is critical that we approach the problem in an economically-responsible manner to ensure that we can provide internet at a price point that our customers are able to afford.
2. Even in the smallest, most out-of-the-way towns there are usually locales for brands such as Cell-C and Vodacom, who offer affordable, yet restrictive voice and internet data bundles.
How will HeroTel dissuade consumers away from the more-tenured brands?
A fixed-internet solution in your home or business is typically more affordable than cellular data – in fact, cellular data is one of the most expensive ways to connect to the internet. Most South Africans simply cannot afford to connect to the internet over cellular networks only, especially if they want to watch video content like TV shows and movies or listen to music.
While Vodacom, MTN, and Cell-C offer mobility, since you can take your phone with you everywhere you go, we offer large amounts of internet access but at fixed locations, for example at your home or business. Similar to bottled water compared to fixed pipes – the one does not negate the other. We will, however, compete against mobile companies on price and quantity.
3. Access to the internet is also limited by specific pieces of hardware.
While access on a mobile phone is better than no access at all, specific functions, especially in education and self-enrichment for professional work, require larger, more expensive pieces of hardware such as desktop computers or laptops.
How will HeroTel aid rural communities in overcoming this issue to ensure the connection of the digital divide?
HeroTel will assist by doing what it does best: building fixed telecoms networks that can connect more people in the communities we serve. Once people are connected, it will be possible for government and hardware providers to find solutions that can overcome screen size.
4. While laudable, HeroTel’s goal of “Everyone Connected” is a tall order, especially in South Africa with the communication and digital landscape as it is.
How will HeroTel remain committed to providing fast, reliable and affordable internet to people who have been previously disadvantaged across the country?
HeroTel has already invested large amounts of capital into our networks, so we are financially committed to a long-term future in South Africa. We are highly optimistic about South Africa and its future and will always look for new ways to connect everyone to the internet. Given enough time and resources, we are certain that every South African will get connected.
Edited by Luis Monzon
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