Government has made several overtures to reduce the cost of internet access and data in South Africa, but will any be effective?

I’m often asked for my opinion on the cost of data and the struggle to proliferate access to the Internet in South Africa. Usually, the persons asking me – whether they be friends, family, or new acquaintances – usually express the same pain points regardless of income, background, or race; that data is too expensive, seldom lasts more than a month, and can (at times) disappear.

The conversation is one I relish – the broad strokes of inequality in South Africa have for so long been defined by one’s racial profile – and to an extent one’s socio-economic standing – that all one needs to do is stand in Cape Town’s central business district and glance upwards to see how past divides continue to shape not only our access to income, property, or livelihood, but further our prosperity in general.

The one major change that has been ushered in over the past twenty years that didn’t exist, say, one hundred years ago, is access to the internet – and, more broadly, access to information. The power of consumer technology and the web in general is that it affords every person regardless of their personal background to have access to the same services and opportunities as the next.

At least, that should be the case in theory.

The internet is far from a dream, though it does have the power to equalize divides and soften the blow of past privilege; shattering down the perpetuity of systems that restrict or prohibit both the financial and physical movement of persons or groups.

While the internet should be a celebrated commodity in South Africa, it’s unfortunately one that’s kept under lock and key by the virtue of monopoly. The one true emancipator – mobile data in tandem with affordable smartphones – has for years been held hostage by mobile networks that have built infrastructure themselves and – for good financial sense – keep their networks close to their chests.

This results in a conundrum; how can ordinary South Africans – likely seeking to work their way up the ladder or create new enterprises over the internet – access that commodity affordably? In one sense, Project Isizwe – the initiative behind free Wi-Fi access in the City of Tshwane – has an apt analogy; if the internet were water, the quality of that water stemming from the tap should in broad strokes be equal to that of the bottled water one can buy in store.

A little like one’s tap, then, the responsibility of handling access to the internet that promotes the South African Bill of Rights falls to government – yet in recent years national government has only (seemingly) been awakened to this fact by the horde of discontent that began the #DataMustFall movement.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has previously been raked over the coals by South African political parties – such as the ANC – for enabling the cost of communicating in the country to exceed that of other African states.  In 2013, South Africa was ranked 30th out of 46 places as “as having the most expensive pre-paid mobile tariffs among African countries”.

To unpack, then, what initiatives has government investigated to break down the barrier of access preventing South Africans from coming online?

A national broadband network

South Africa’s broadband policy stipulates that 50% of South Africans must have access to a 5mbps connection by 2016, and that 90% of South Africans must have access to a 5mbps connection by 2020, while 50% of citizens must be able to achieve a connection speed of 100mbps by the same year.

Siyabonga Cwele, the Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, has previously sought to reduce the cost of communication within South Africa through pricing and content reforms. In 2014, Cwele sought approval for a budget of R1.59 billion ZAR in a bid for government to “establish an environment in which the cost to communicate is affordable to all South Africans”. 

South African government formally allocated R2.5 billion towards the development of a national broadband network in September of 2016, where eight district municipalities would be among the first to benefit from the initiative.

Those municipalities include Dr Kenneth Kaunda in North West, Gert Sibande in Mpumalanga, OR Tambo in the Eastern Cape, Pixley ka Seme in the Northern Cape, Thabo Mofutsanyane in the Free State, Umgungundlovu and Umzinyathi in KwaZulu-Natal, and Vhembe in Limpopo.

jacob zuma 2017 SONA

President Jacob Zuma clarified in his 2017 State of the Nation Address that government would continue to place the high cost of data “‘uppermost in (their) policies and plans” – though the statesman failed to elaborate further.

The Broadband Market Value-Chain study was concluded in 2014 with the view of regulating broadband prices, while the National Roaming Study was undertaken to study the cost implications of mobile operators – with the view of studying discriminatory behavior that blocked the entrance of smaller operators.

Regulation behind the national broadband network

The establishment of a National Broadband Network would be guided by two new regulations; the first, The Pricing Transparency Regulations would supposedly “to enable consumers to have a clear understanding of the true costs for the services they pay for”, while Premium Content Regulation was set to regulate how broadcasters access premium content services such as sport rights and films.

The open-access network would see South Africa would operate with a new, open-access wholesale-only wireless network. This would allow a greater efficiency in terms of network capacity, and would serve as a platform for new mobile operators to enter the playing field without having to field the cost of setting up their own network infrastructure.

The end emphasis, here, would mean that smaller mobile networks would be able to act with greater efficacy and launch competitive prices through the established network, while larger private networks such as Vodacom, MTN, or Cell C would correspondingly have to move to offer more affordable access to their networks to retain subscribers. The move could well shatter the monopoly held by South Africa’s largest mobile networks, while opening space for new players to emerge with the guidance of new regulations.

Not without criticism

The plan hasn’t been met with total critical support, however; Martyn Roetter cites that a wholesale network would effectively be a monopoly that would be difficult to control, the plan could fail to attract enough traffic from existing operators and hence fail as a business, and the fact that all operators could feasibly access the same network would reduce the ability of new networks to offer differentiated and hence attractive products.

Thankfully, the bid to create an open access network isn’t a lone threat to the soaring cost of internet access in South Africa; ICASA (the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa) has proposed stringent new regulations that – if approved – would have massive consequences for the operations of mobile networks.

Chief among ICASA’s proposed regulations is the fact that mobile networks would be forced to set pre-determined validity periods for data bundles, wherein networks would be mandated to warn users at least seven days before a set expiry period.

The move would ensure that consumers with active data bundles would see any unused data roll over into a following month. For example, ICASA has suggested that data bundles between 1MB-50MB should last just 10 days, while consumers who purchased more than 20GB of mobile data should be rewarded with a wide validity period of 24 months.

The Authority has further proposed that “a Licensee must ensure that an end-user is not defaulted automatically to out-of-bundle data charges upon depletion of data bundles” – meaning that, should the proposed regulations be approved, networks would not be able to immediately issue consumers with additional expense should they surpass their monthly data bundle. This, in addition to mandatory consumption alerts that would notify consumers when they have expended more than 50%, 75%, and 90% of their data bundle would ideally help to regulate the practices of mobile operators.

Help from around the world

The challenge of lowering the cost of internet access has also seen the private sector pull up its socks; Project Isizwe, for example, has championed free public Wi-Fi networks in the City of Tshwane. The partnership has seen innovative measures to promote civic participation – encouraging consumers to pay their rates bills on time to benefit from increased bundle capacity being one such example.

Further afield, Internet for All is an initiative designed and promoted by the World Economic Forum to bring connectivity to regions and some four billion persons around the world who’ve previously been unable to access the internet.

A cross-collaboration model, Internet for All partners the public government and private businesses to develop a sustainable, long-term solution for internet access in emerging markets. The initiative was launched in three country programs – the Northern Corridor in Africa, Argentina, and India, and has now made its way to South Africa.

On the subject of Internet for All’s arrival in South Africa, Minister Cwele iterated that “This project will help us meet our national development goals of reaching everyone by 2020. It is an enormous target but I think it is achievable if we work together to spread the infrastructure where it is not available”.

The initiative costs are estimated to be some $64 USD per person, though that cost could be lowered through means such as infrastructure sharing – something South Africa’s proposed national broadband network could go a long way to providing.

A long road ahead

Despite these overtures, it’s clear that establishing accessible, meaningful internet access in South Africa will take time. Where the development of national infrastructure marches at the pace of snails, the ability of the private sector to become meaningfully involved is stifled by the prohibitive partnerships government chooses to make; rendering small, successful initiatives such as Project Isizwe’s efforts in Tshwane a beacon of hope.

However, moves are afoot by mobile network operators themselves to resolve this conundrum all thanks to the benefit of strong competition – Telkom Mobile, the newest player on the scene, has brought with it compelling packages that offer substantial data bundles with resilient pricing, and recently inked deals with major international streaming services to zero-rate such platforms on specific deals.

Hope remains – though it will soon become the responsibility of all South Africans, regardless of background, social standing, or income, to fight together for accessible internet tariffs. The measure of success will undoubtedly be two-fold; whether South Africans can stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and whether mobile operators will buckle under pressure.

Join the conversation

What are your thoughts? How could we meaningfully promote affordable access to the internet in South Africa? Tweet me – @bryansmithSA!