When was the last time you stopped to consider just how essential internet access is to you? In the space of the last 30 minutes, you've almost certainly relied on a mobile data connection to do some work, or to exchange messages with some people you care about, and at least one person reading this surely found their future spouse in the past five minutes by swiping right (even if they don't know it yet). And, if you're in the top 20% of earners in South Africa (likely if you're reading the HuffPost), you probably haven't paused to think about the cost—and rightly so, because 500MBs of data will cost you less than half a percent of your monthly income. That's more affordable than the coffee you buy every day at work.
And if you haven't thought about cost, that's the way it should be. Access to the internet is essential to modern life—for work and play. In fact, it's so important that the United Nations recently declared that internet access should be a human right.
But the stark reality is that for tens of millions of South Africans, getting online isn't even an option. We're one of the most unequal societies in the world, so while many at the top of the pile enjoy near unlimited access to high-quality internet, many in our society simply can't afford the price of even the most basic mobile data package. The bottom 20% of income earners in SA have to shell out 14% of their monthly incomes for just 500MBs of data—roughly equivalent to what most people in that income bracket spend on housing. For the next 20%, the picture is not much better—500MBs of data is thirteen times less affordable than it is for the highest earners. The United Nations considers that a country has 'affordable' internet if 500MBs of data is available for less than 5% of income—so by that benchmark, two in five of South Africans can't afford even this basic ration. And that's before we even begin to look at the cost of a smartphone and the electricity needed to keep it powered.
The reality is that no matter what issue gets you fired up, affordable access to the internet probably has a role to play in solving it.
"So what?", I hear you shrug. "Aren't there bigger things to worry about than the cost of data?" Possibly. But the reality is that no matter what issue gets you fired up, affordable access to the internet probably has a role to play in solving it. Do you want to see all young South Africans able to access decent education? Online resources can help - but only if anyone can afford to access them. Are you concerned about gender equality and equal opportunities for women and girls? High internet prices hit women harder than men, denying them access to the equalising power of the internet. Are you sick of corruption in our society? The web can offer access to independent sources of information and make it easier to track waste and corruption - but this is only powerful if a critical mass of citizens can afford to access and act on that information. Are you a committed capitalist, who values economic growth over all else? Bringing connectivity rates across Africa to 75% over a five-year period would create 44 million new jobs, increase the rate of GDP growth by 92%, and decrease extreme poverty by 30%, according to Deloitte.
In short, unless we tackle the issue of unaffordable internet, we're just going to go on entrenching and worsening the existing divides and inequalities in our country. And - although it's hard to make direct comparisons as each country is unique - the signs are that there is room for improvement. Prices for one GB of data are currently lower in 15 other African countries than they are in South Africa.
Fixing this needn't be that hard though—government and companies need to come together and follow global good practice. But we need public pressure to force their hand. Luckily, this issue is gaining prominence—the #datamustfall campaign has shown businesses and politicians that ordinary South Africans care about this issue, and unless they take action, we'll hit them where it hurts, by withholding our Rands and our votes. Parliament's already held public hearings on the topic, and has promised action in the coming months.
So let's keep the pressure up, consider just how lucky we are to be connected, and how much better our society can be if we ensure that everyone benefits from their right to connect.