Bringing internet to South Africa’s unconnected

[Image]Vodacom’s WebBox requires no intricate
set-up and allows users to connect to the
internet using a television as monitor.
(Image: Vodacom)

[Image] The MTN InternetOnTV is bulkier than the
WebBox, as it consists of three parts, but
it essentially offers the same services.
(Image: TechCentral)

MEDIA CONTACTS
• Nomsa Thusi
Vodacom spokesperson
+27 11 848 8193

Shamin Chibba

For about a decade, South Africa’s three major mobile networks have been wrestling to be the country’s leading service provider. Now, the competition has intensified with the rollout by MTN and Vodacom of devices that can connect to the internet using televisions as monitors.

On 15 February, Vodacom unleashed its Vodafone WebBox – a multimedia plug-and-play keyboard that can be connected to a television, turning the ‘idiot box’ into a computer monitor.

The sleek Qwerty keyboard can turn any television into an internet portal with its built-in modem. The device connects with a standard RCA cable. It is supported by the Android 2.1 platform, and uses the Vodafone Opera Mini browser to surf the internet. Other features include a video player, picture viewer and FM radio.

According to an Engineering News report, WebBox was developed by Vodacom’s parent company Vodafone, with the emerging market in mind. It aims to bring the internet to people who previously did not have access because of high connectivity and equipment costs, and will launch in South Africa before its introduction to other markets.

Rivals in the race

The WebBox launch took place a day before MTN unveiled its version, called InternetOnTV.

InternetOnTV is not as sleek as the Vodacom device as it comprises three separate parts – a keyboard, mouse and handset – whereas all the WebBox’s components are contained within the keyboard. But it does have all the features of the WebBox, including the same web browser and access to email and SMS services – with a few added bonuses.

According to Mapula Bodibe, MTN’s GM of consumer marketing, their device offers social media integration, MS Office document support and 3G at 7.2Mbps. Furthermore, the built-in media player also supports popular multimedia formats such as MP3, AAC, DIV, WMA and MPEG4, while the handset can be used to make phone calls.

There have been a few negative comments about both offerings, such as the purchase price – R749 (US$105) for Vodacom and R999 ($140) for MTN, given that the devices are aimed at the unconnected market – and the fact that users still have to buy prepaid data bundles or use their airtime, but the general consensus is that this is a step in the right direction.

The InternetOnTV will soon be available in Jet retail stores across the country, and account holders will have the convenience of paying it off over six months, interest-free. Those interested in the WebBox will have to go to a Vodacom outlet and pay for the device up front.

Educational tool

Patrick Chomet, Vodafone’s Group Director of Terminals, referred to the WebBox as a simple and innovative product that can make a difference for those living in developing countries.

“The WebBox has the potential to make a powerful difference in the lives of people in emerging markets who have limited access to the internet, but where TV penetration is typically very high. It brings the internet to the TV, be that at home for the family, in schools for education or in small businesses to assist local economic growth,” he said.

Vodacom’s commercial director Romeo Khumalo agreed, saying the WebBox will add dramatic value to schools, homes and small businesses.

“The wealth of knowledge that is available on the Internet can now be accessed by millions of South Africans which will add greater value to the South African economy.”

Still making its presence felt

Though the WebBox may revolutionise the way we watch television and view the internet, some tech savvy South Africans seem to be oblivious to the WebBox’s existence. Jaen-Pierre Klaassen, CEO of web development company My Guru, had not heard of the WebBox and instead knows of other similar devices that have been selling in developed countries.

“I know of Google TV doing something similar. And at the moment, I do the same thing on my PlayStation 3,” he said. The PlayStation 3, of course, is a much more expensive device and is not aimed at the developing market.

Klaassen did praise the WebBox for its convenience.

“Right now, this sort of technology is at the beginning stages and can only get better from here. The Apple iPad, Google TV and the WebBox are nice ideas. What could be better than sitting in your lounge and browsing the internet on your TV?”

Additional features

The WebBox’s browser homepage is bookmarked with links to news, sport and social networking sites as well as a job search and application service, which is more relevant to the local situation. The device also stores games, a dictionary and a basic text editor.

The WebBox scooped the Universal Design Award Consumer Favourite 2011, with special mention given to its flexibility and usability, as well as its security and affordability.

The product’s cost includes a two GB SD card and prepaid SIM card with 100 MB of data which is valid for three months. It may also be available on a 24-month contract in future.