Feature phones will impede plans to connect millions: Ndabeni-Abrahams

Minister of communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Minister of communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

The adoption of basic feature phones with no Internet access will hamper government's plans to connect 22 million South Africans by 2020.

This is according to minister of communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, speaking recently at the Huawei ConnectUnity event, in Johannesburg.

Discussing the importance of using technology to connect South Africans with the rest of the world, Ndabeni-Abrahams lamented the prevalent use of basic feature phones with no Internet access, in a country that should be keeping up with the demands of the fourth industrial revolution's fast technological change.

As of January 2018, South Africa had 31.81 million Internet users, of which 29.2 million were mobile Internet users, according to a report by Statista.

Around 51% of South African citizens own a smartphone that can access the Internet, making it the most common Internet-connected device in the country, according to a report by Pew Research.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said we need to see more South Africans having access to affordable, Internet-connected smartphones, which open a world of opportunity to global collaboration, communication and knowledge sharing.

"We still see a lot of telecommunications companies producing feature phones. Why do we continue to produce feature phones with no Internet, yet at the same time we are still demanding spectrum, and we are still promoting and encouraging South Africans to use the latest technologies? What opportunities does the feature phone provide to our people?"

In January 2018, SA had 31.81 million Internet users, of which 29.2 million were mobile Internet users.
In January 2018, SA had 31.81 million Internet users, of which 29.2 million were mobile Internet users.

Last May, the Department of Telecommunications & Postal Services minister Siyabonga Cwele announced the launch of the 'Internet for All' programme as part of government's aspirations to accelerate connectivity in the country. The project aims to connect over 22 million citizens to the Internet in the next two years.

As the ambitious deadline edges closer, Ndabeni-Abrahams believes telecos should focus on creating more affordable technologies to enable access to disadvantaged communities, while helping the country to speed up its target to connect millions.

"With just over 20 million connected South Africans, we need to see more people being at the centre of the latest technologies. Through the smartphone, people can gain access to educational information and enjoy all the benefits that come with having connectivity, such as creating a global dialogue and gaining access to life-changing tools.

"While we are fighting for data to fall, we also need to ensure that we provide affordable technologies and easier access to those who can't afford these technologies."

Cost-conscious phone users

For many people in Africa, the basic feature phone is still the mobile phone of choice.

According to a report by IDC, shipments of feature phones totalled 31.4 million units in the second quarter of 2018, constituting a 58.3% share of Africa's overall mobile phone market.

"Feature phones cater to the needs of the continent's huge low-income population (mainly in rural areas) by providing basic mobile communications that are priced very competitively," says IDC.

The cheapest mobile phone in SA costs less than R100, while entry-level Android smartphones cost between R500 and R600. The most expensive phone currently available in the South African market is the Huawei Mate RS Porsche Design, which sells for roughly R26 500.

This means a minimum wage earner may have to work for 26 hours to be able to afford the cheapest smartphone, and 1 300 hours to be able to afford the most expensive smartphone on the South African market.

A minimum wage earner would have to work for 26 hours to afford the cheapest smartphone and 1 300 hours to afford the most expensive smartphone.
A minimum wage earner would have to work for 26 hours to afford the cheapest smartphone and 1 300 hours to afford the most expensive smartphone.

* The national minimum wage, announced by president Cyril Ramaphosa last week, will be set at R20 for each hour worked from January 2019.

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