South African mobile operators Vodacom and MTN have just launched competing products that allow you to surf the internet from your TV. Vodacom’s Webbox costs R749 and allows users to browse the web, SMS and send emails using the simple keyboard and interface. MTN’s InternetOnTV costs R999 but includes more features, like a built-in phone, a high-speed modem and a computer mouse.
Both services let you connect by inserting a prepaid SIM card into your device – you browse the web by buying “airtime” that converts to internet data.
So, why are these products so revolutionary? Quite simply, connecting to the internet through a TV removes a huge technological barrier for poorer people and lets them access the web affordably, using technology they probably already own or that they have easier access to.
Most people in South Africa connect to the internet with their cellphones. However, these devices are often so small and rudimentary that it’s hard to do more than the absolute basics online.
Expanding the view screen to a TV and adding the control that a keyboard and mouse offer dramatically improves the scope and quality of the experience. Since vastly more people own TVs than computers, this increases the reach of the internet substantially.
While the systems are not very cheap – over and above the cost of the device, the user needs to buy airtime regularly – they are far more affordable than a full computer (at least R3 000) and a monthly internet connection (anything upwards of R250 a month). Devices that bring the internet to a TV bridge the digital divide for a considerable proportion of the population.
Internationally, TV-based internet is already taking off with the Google TV and Sony’s always-connected set. While first world users are benefitting from a larger screen for browsing and watching online content, people in the third world are getting vital access to the amazing resources of the internet – information, education, insights, media content and so on.
As more South Africans get connected, our nation becomes a more powerful force in culture, business and development – vital and empowering aspects for all.
To find out more, check out the University of Cape Town’s Internet Super-User course which starts on 11 April 2011. For more information, visit www.getsmarter.co.za