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#DataMustFall -- The High Cost Of Data Has Created A New Digital Apartheid

Some poor communities have to spend as much as 22% of their monthly income just to stay connected to the world. The international norm in 5%.

08/12/2016 04:59 SAST | Updated 08/12/2016 10:18 SAST
Getty Images/Gallo Images ROOTS Collection

Members of the Mankosi community, who live in one of the poorest rural areas of South Africa with an average household income is R388 a month, still manage to spend an average of R85 a month on telecommunication costs.

According to a study by Carlos Rey Moreno, a senior researcher at the University of Cape Town, this small rural community in the Eastern Cape is one of many poor neighbourhoods across the country that spend 22% of their already non-existing income in a bid to connect with the world.

"Access to communication is widespread in rural communities. Despite limited income levels (R400 a month), mainly coming from social grants (55%), people expend 22% of disposable income for a limited a basket of communications services (including 7 SMSes, 77 minutes of calling time, and 25-30MB)," says Moreno.

The 22% budget for telecommunications in his research is much higher than the international standard of 5% of total income a month. The South African Department of Communications's 2030 vision is to drop telecommunication costs to the international standards of 5% (90 minutes of voice calls and 500MB of data).

The poor are paying more and getting less, is this really value for money?

In addition to data costs, the communities have to pay to charge their cellphones and pay additional costs added by resellers of airtime to airtime sold. All these expenses are telecommunication expenses that have an impact on food and other basic amenities, causing these poor communities to decide on a monthly basis on whether to keep in touch with relatives and buy data to look for job opportunities, or put food on the table.

People in rural areas get their calls dropped regularly within seconds of talking but yet are still being charged for a minute instead of a second.

In the modern day the internet is the new world, it allows you to express yourself, to impart and receive information, to do assignments as a student, to look for and apply for jobs as an adult and endless possibilities. But the high telecommunication costs in South Africa make it difficult to take advantage of all these opportunities and to communicate effectively with the world, especially for those living below the margin.

Talking to the SABC, Dale McKinley, a campaign spokesperson at Right2Know, pointed to the digital divide caused by high data costs between the haves and the have nots. "Just like education, where everyone has a right to it, everyone should have a right to communicate," he said.

"If only those who are wealthy, those who live in urban areas, if you live in Melville down the road and have fibre optic (fast, reliable internet), but if you live in Westbury and they are never going to put fibre optic there because it's poor people and they are not going to be able to pay for that, then we have what we call digital apartheid. A situation where those that have are able to enjoy all the benefits and those that don't won't, and our Constitution was explicitly trying to overcome that divide in our country."

There are also problems of infrastructural inequality: people in rural areas get their calls dropped regularly within seconds of talking but yet are still being charged for a minute instead of a second.

"Often the MNOs [mobile network operators] won't charge you on a per second basis, they will charge you on a per minute basis. You lose 80% of your airtime even though it is not your fault, the network is not working properly," McKinley said. "Once again those that have the least access to the most decent infrastructure are the ones that are suffering the most... You can't just have everything in the urban areas, it makes the divisions worse."

Data in SA costs an arm and two legs!

A live media report by news broadcaster ANN7 recently revealed that South Africa has one of the highest data prices compared to other countries. MTN South Africa charges R160 for one gigabyte (1GB) of data, Vodacom and Cell C charge R149 and Telkom charges the lowest among the big game players, at R99 for 1GB.

Global comparisons indicate how high South Africa's prices are: India charges R11 for 1GB, Nigeria charges R22, Ghana R71, Russia R24, and Vodacom in Tanzania charges R98 for 1GB but R149 in South Africa. But it seems this hasn't influenced big mobile network operators to lower their prices.

The conversation about lowering telecosts has been going on for years, with a large number of South Africans outraged by the high prices g and calling it "blatant exploitation". Organisations such as Right2Know have been at the forefront of the battle with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and mobile network operators to lower costs and to allow for universal access.

A small victory was achieved in 2014 when prices on voice calls were lowered by ICASA and the operators, but there is still a long way to go to win the battle on data.

#DataMustFall

A new social media campaign #DataMustFall started by radio personality and businessman Thabo Molefe, popularly known as "T-bo Touch", has refueled the fire started by Right2Know to lower data costs in South Africa.

The campaign started in September 2016 and has enjoyed great media coverage and a presentation to Parliament on the importance of lowering data costs.

The 2013 study conducted at Mankosi community in the Eastern Cape, where an alternative ICT system called Zenzele was set up, indicated that cheaper community-owned communication systems might be the solution for the rural poor.

In an interview with ANN7 on the topic, Molefe said the campaign's goal was not to start a war with mobile network operators but merely ask for data costs to be revised and regulated through policy. This was why the campaign managers and other experts went to Parliament in September, instead of protesting outside operators' offices.

Molefe said there was no logic in the cheap MTN pricing in Ghana compared to South Africa. The MTN headquarters are based in South Africa, about 6,000 kilometres away from Ghana, yet Ghana enjoys cheaper packages.

Data infringing on right to education

The issue of data is not just a ploy to get mobile operators to drop prices so that anyone can enjoy unlimited cheap internet access anywhere. Nor is it a ploy to take away profit from mobile network operators. High data prices are infringing on both the right to communication and the right to education, said Molefe.

He said data was "everything" to students who also had to spend money on transport, textbooks and other forms of communication which enhance the learning experience. High data costs were potential hindrances to poor students' ability to perform at their best.

Thabo Shingane, SRC president at the University of Pretoria, said in the same show that students rely on data to complete assignments, tests and to keep up with online courses. In instances where a student does not understand what is happening in a lecture, he or she has an option to consult online platforms for further clarity. But lack of off-campus wifi for students living on the outskirts of suburban areas was making it difficult to achieve good academic results.

Shingane said students were struggling to keep up with their academics due to the "exorbitant prices for data – and to speak of it as a profit is misleading, I think it is exploitation".

Bloomberg via Getty Images
A street vendor who sells prepaid Vodacom airtime makes a call on his cellphone in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday, January 28, 2013.

This applied not just to varsity students, but high school e-learning programmes were also being affected. "To navigate around the issue of e-learning one would need to address the issue (of data)," he said.

Touching on two key possible solutions to dealing with high data costs, Molefe said "networks should decrease their value and increase volume", thereby absorbing more people at a lesser value to make profits. He also said South Africans could enjoy cheap prices like Ghana if there was more competition among operators. "Ghana has more players," he said, giving users more options to choose from.

When asked why the data costs were so high, IT specialist from Internet Solutions, Sipho Ngwenya, said "it was a return on investment" because as mobile network operators have to make a profit from the infrastructure they build. According to Ngwenya this money was formerly recouped through voice calls, which have slowly taken a back seat due to the rise in "data- hungry" applications such as Whatsapp, forcing network operators to take that "lion's share" once sourced through voice calls through data.

Other factors cited in a recent TimesLive report include inadequate radio frequencies, market saturation and "exploding" data traffic. Mobile network operators have also said the rising prices of electricity and fuel influence their prices.

How should data fall?

What are the solutions to make data fall? According to the #Datamustfall campaign's Molefe, data issues need to be addressed at policy level to encourage monitoring and regulation, free hours during working hours to be effective and not at midnight when people cannot explore opportunities or engage.

He suggested that text-based websites such as Amazon should be used for free by students who need to download educational material. Molefe applauded Tshwane for offering citizens free data, but emphasised that the call is for lower data costs and not free data.

"To give people access to infrastructure but make it expensive is dangling the carrot," he said.

The 2013 study conducted at Mankosi community in the Eastern Cape, where an alternative ICT system called Zenzele was set up, indicated that cheaper community-owned communication systems might be the solution for the rural poor.

Zenzele was the result of a partnership between the community and Moreno, the researcher responsible for the report on "Cost of communication in South Africa", presented to Parliament by organisations such as Right2Know and other NGOs.

Zenzele was launched in 2012 with a licence granted by ICASA. It uses cheaper global system for mobile (GSM) communications to provide free internal calls and discounted rates to call mobile phones and landlines from a set of public phones spread in the community via a network of wifi access points.

To further reduce costs, charging stations have been deployed across the neighbourhood. These have contributed to a 55% reduction in the price people pay to keep their mobile phones charged.

Tests are being done to offer discounted rates on wifi-enabled phones, as well as to offer cheaper internet access to community members, schools and business. This method is said to be ideal for poor communities who have basic cellphones and low literacy levels.

This community-operated GSM method, according to the report, can help drastically bring down prices to 5% of household income utilised on communications, thus helping to meet the communication department's 2030 vision.

So why are network operators not looking into this option? Because it does not have lucrative returns, of course.

"Expanded affordable access to GSM is the most cost-effective way to reduce the cost to communicate in rural South Africa. Yet, operators with access to that spectrum are either not providing affordable services or are choosing not to make use of it on the basis of the modest return on investment expected," the report says.

"We recommend that in order to reduce the cost to communicate in rural South Africa the Parliament considers the allocation a social purpose GSM spectrum... and the allocation of specific funding mechanisms for the licensees to flourish."

Tholakele Nene manages the #MineAlert online and mobi app, which relies on cheap data to allow mining-affected communities to access, track and share information and documents on mining applications and licences - blogs editor.