It is unrealistic for South Africans to expect broadband services to become as cheap as they are in other countries, networking companies have warned.

For once MTN, Telkom and other service providers agree -- saying it is not feasible to offer fast internet access at the bargain prices other countries enjoy.

The comments were made at a Broadband Shootout event hosted by the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers last week, to let users compare the various options available.

"While broadband is used by millions of people around the world, SA has lagged behind in the adoption of fixed broadband technology," said the institute's president, Bea Lacquet. "However, this is speeding up now with wireless, wireline, 3G (third generation) and other mobile services on offer."

SA has already seen some tremendous cost cutting, although the cuts affected relatively few people as the initial prices are simply too extreme for most people to sign up.

Vodacom, for example, has cut the cost of its data downloads from R40000 for a gigabit of data eight months ago to 50c today.

The geographic nature of SA and its distance from the main internet lines of the US and Europe are major cost barriers, the players said.

SA would not see the low prices enjoyed in Korea, where everyone lives in easy-to-connect high rise buildings, said Telkom's technical product development executive, Steve Lewis. "At the end of Africa putting in undersea cables costs money, which has to be recovered," he said.

Telkom understood the need to make broadband available to everyone to boost the economy and improve education, the company said, and would continue to cut costs.

"We are not going to see the low 'all-you-can-eat' prices in SA that you see in the northern hemisphere," said Brian Seligmann, MTN's manager for 3G services. "The size of the country we have to cover is vastly bigger than any European country, yet they have more subscribers. But the more subscribers we get the more economies of scale work in favour for lower prices," he said.

Next year MTN and Vodacom aim to introduce "Super 3G", or high-speed download packet access technology, to transmit data at 2Mb per second.

"That will start to give South African consumers the affordable bandwidth they require," Seligmann said.

MTN has slashed its data prices and now carries more than 1000 times the volume of data it did four months ago, he said.

When lower prices, increased geographic coverage and faster speeds of new technologies were taken into consideration, broadband internet access was now 17000 times more accessible in SA than it had been 18 months ago, Seligmann said.

Sentech used the event to point the finger directly back at Telkom for keeping SA's broadband prices high.

About 62% of the cost of providing a broadband service was soaked up in paying Telkom for access to international bandwidth, said Winston Smith of Sentech's My Wireless service.

What would really encourage the use of broadband internet was for the communications department to force Telkom to slash the cost of access to its undersea cables, he said.

Business Day