Mobile Internet on the rise in South Africa

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With the development of technology such as the 3G card - the mobile success story of 2007 - providing consumers with increasing access to online, banking and other services, mobile communications is at a tipping point similar to that of the Internet a few years ago. This is according to the findings of the Mobility 2007 study released on Tuesday, 20 November 2007.

The impact of mobile and wireless technology on South African corporations and SMEs is the subject of the now annual study by Arthur Goldstuck's World Wide Worx, sponsored by FNB. The rise of the 3G data card is probably one of the big stories of telecommunications in the corporate and SME environment in South Africa in 2007, it emerged.

Over 100 IT decision makers and 800 SMEs were interviewed for the study. The corporate phase of Mobility 2007, which also includes consumer and small and medium enterprise (SME) research phases, shows the proportion of South African corporations whose staff use 3G data cards rising from 58% in 2006 to 82% in 2007. In contrast, the proportion that facilitate WiFi access by their staff has fallen from 74% to 66%, it was stated in the report.

Corporate use of WiFi - small networks that allow wireless access to the Internet - has fallen back after a steady rise in the previous three years. By contrast, the use of 3G - wireless broadband provided by the mobile networks - has rocketed. "We have been warning for several years that commercial WiFi hotspots, especially in hotels and conference centres, are in danger of pricing themselves out of the market," said Goldstuck, who led the research. "And, now that a monthly subscription to a basic 3G service is cheaper than a few hours on most commercial hotspots, the chickens have come home to roost!"

Another factor that is having an impact on WiFi is the promise of WiMAX - a high-speed long-distance broadband technology, which is being piloted by a number of service providers in South Africa. As many as 8% of corporations say they are trying it out, which exactly matches the proportion that is dropping WiFi.

In contrast, the use of wireless broadband services by SMEs has jumped sharply, from 16% in 2006 to 31% in 2007. As with corporates, most SMEs using 3G are doing so to remain connected when out of the office and as a back-up, rather than as a primary form of connectivity.

The findings make it clear that businesses are conscious of both cost and convenience, and will embrace those technologies that make business sense and are easy to use, Goldstuck pointed out.

Findings in the research on corporate SA included:

Core mobile technologies: cellphone for voice/SMS, laptop, 3G card. Dramatic trend is the emergence of 3G data card - this is one of the big stories of telecommunications in corporate SA in 2007. Eighty two percent of corporates are issuing 3G cards to staff and we are seeing the increasing flexibility of corporate workers in SA.

Workhorse mobile technologies: GPRS connectivity for cellphones - 71% of corporate are using GPRS on cellphones. There is a leveling off and marginal decrease due to the arrival of 3G.

Technologies in transition: Wifi networks via laptop - mostly for accessing hotspots while on the move. WiMAX being tried out by 8% of corporates. A very important transitional access emerging is back office access - sending in sales information, retrieving sales information via cellphone. Bluetooth is another, and public access radio.Goldstuck explains: "What you see here is the growth of 3G datacards - it is very clear that as the proportion of companies using 3G increased, the level of Wifi access dropped back. Wifi, from a commercial point of view in hotspots in hotels, airport lounges, has lost the attraction. The costs are too high: at R1 a minutes access, it's like getting mugged. The cost of Wifi hotspots in South Africa has priced that out of the market as an option for South African corporate users. 3G is much better value for money. Commercial Wifi hotspots are dead in the water."

Mobile technologies in transition: SMEs are embracing new mobile technologies and are going for 3G: 31%; PDA 23%, Wifi 36% - but dropping. Their primarily form of connection is ADSL, but they use mostly 3G.

Phone features used: SMS is becoming an SME tool in a big way (over 60%). From 5% in 2006 to 27% are using 3G datacards -from almost nowhere the year before. Email access has rocketed from 0% to 27% on mobile phones in the past year.

Planning to use in future: SME decisionmakers don't know what technologies they will be using in the future - 30% believe they will use email in the future on their cellphones, but more don't know how many advanced features they will use on their cellphones in the future; 54% intend using SMS, but 29% don't know; they are less sure about Bluetooth handsfree, the mobile phone as a modem, Internet browsing, Bluetooth networking and location-based services.Consumer research

Dashboard marketing intelligence head Peter Searll estimates the number of mobile users at 32 million out of a population of 48 million. Some people believe the number is closer to 40 million; other research believes there is an overstating of figures and that the number is closer to 28 million.

Over half the market have had their phone for less than a year. Only 18% of phones are older than two years. Purchasers in the last six months are likely to be younger. People love their phones and 37% want a new phone within the next year. New phones are enablers for advanced data usage.

On average there has been a 5% increase in using other mobile services: camera phones, video, online purchases, etc.

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