Warning signals for SA on information highwayGrowing pains aplenty as industry comes of age
As the Internet continues to flourish, the industry awaits a government ruling that could undermine its future, writes GREG GORDON
SOUTH Africa's Internet industry faces an uncertain future. Until the SA Telecommunications Regulatory Authority rules next month whether Telkom has exclusivity on basic Internet services for five years, the industry remains in a state of flux.
Never before has the private Internet community faced such a crisis which, some say, could affect its revenues by 50% or more. Internet-related turnover in the South African market amounts to about R35-million a month.
Commercial Internet operations began in South Africa in 1993 and mushroomed as businesses and individuals flocked to get on-line.
So much so, in fact, that South Africa became and remains one of the top 20 most connected countries in the world.
If Satra rules against private Internet service providers being able to offer basic Internet protocols, the industry will practically have to reinvent itself.
In the meantime, the country's Internet community continues to grow. As it does, so the growing pains are becoming more apparent. One of the greatest dangers it faces is the threat posed by computer viruses, now being spread even faster thanks to the popularity of E-mail as a means of communication and document sharing.
Some macro viruses are now capable of subtly manipulating data in spreadsheets, something that businesses should be aware of. Statistically, it is difficult to pinpoint the likelihood of being struck by one of these nasties, but it is worth guarding against.
Local banks continue to make advances with their web sites, although take-up by consumers has been fairly restrained. Personal finance software packages are now able to take a person's banking details directly from their bank electronically and automatically place it into software where it can be analysed.
A perception the Internet industry as a whole needs to overcome is that trading electronically is unsafe.
Many people are wary of conducting transactions on-line, fearful of the spectre of hackers who will steal their credit card details and spend up a storm. The reality is that Internet transactions by and large are safe - and getting safer all the time.
On the hardware front, a standards war between modem manufacturers is slowing the pace of high-speed connection take-up among dial-up consumers. They have to choose between US Robotics's X2 or Rockwell's K56 technology, and Internet service providers are split down the middle in terms of which they support. A standard should be decided early next year, but the debacle is not winning the modem industry many friends.
South African E-mail traffic continues to grow; that growth becoming self-sustained as people reap the benefits of communicating electronically. E-mail is expected to be the technology that replaces the fax as it reduces the cost of transferring information across the country or the world to the price of a local telephone call. Text, pictures, sound and even video are all candidates for transfer via E-mail.
Large companies are turning in growing numbers to video conferencing to slash business travel expenses. Just a year ago the technology was afforded gimmick status, but it will enter the mainstream next year and pick-up is expected to be swift.
New devices that allow people to connect to the Web and send and receive E-mail via their TV sets have arrived in South Africa. Sales are expected to be strong - especially since just 15% of PC users are any good at typing.
On the whole, South Africa's Internet industry is enjoying strong growth. It remains to be seen whether that will be sustained after Satra's decision on October 14.