Johannesburg - South Africa's internet population is expected to grow as much in the next five years as it has in the 15 years since the internet became commercially available in the country.
This is among the conclusions contained in the Internet Access in South Africa 2008 report, released recently by researchers and consultants at World Wide Worx.
The report shows that the number of internet users in South Africa grew by 12.5 percent to 4.6 million in 2008 - the first time since 2001 it has grown by more than 8 percent, reports SouthAfrica.info.
The increased growth rate is expected to continue for the next five years, taking the internet user population to the nine million mark by 2014.
According to World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck, four major factors will drive this growth.
"The first and most obvious development is the arrival of a new undersea telecommunications cable at the end of June. It will increase South Africa's maximum international bandwidth fivefold, and the actual capacity that was available until the end of last year will increase 30-fold," he said.
Mr Goldstuck noted, however, that the arrival of the new cable would bring down bandwidth costs and increase capacity gradually - not overnight.
The second factor driving South Africa's internet growth was the granting of telecommunications licences to all internet service providers (ISPs) who wished to upgrade their existing licences, allowing them to build their own networks.
"While we won't see even a tenth of the 600 existing ISPs setting up networks, enough of them will emerge from under the radar to give consumers and business a new world of choice," Mr Goldstuck said.
These networks would be able to take advantage of the new undersea cable, which will allow service providers to buy bandwidth capacity at wholesale prices and repackage and resell it as they wished.
"This means that the new generation of service providers will be able to introduce business models that were never possible before."
The third factor is the rapid rate at which smaller South African businesses are migrating from slow dial-up connections to faster Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Lines (ADSLs).
The impact of these lines goes much further than merely the number of small businesses that connect.
"Our research shows that every small and medium enterprise (SME) using ADSL is connecting anywhere between one and 20 additional individuals to the internet.
"This means that SMEs have taken over from large businesses as the biggest driver of internet access in South Africa," Mr Goldstuck said.
The fourth factor is the growth of internet access via mobile phones in South Africa - although the report notes that this is not yet as big a factor as the media hype suggests.
According to Mr Goldstuck, the cellphone right now is a very crude device for accessing the internet.
"We will need to see great improvements in both usability and people's ability to use advanced features on their cellphones and that will take another few years," he said.