Time to rally behind lower data rates

2017-09-06 09:18

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Vodacom’s increasingly poor service was dealt another blow recently, as it had to reimburse data that had been unduly subtracted from customers’ accounts.

This naturally led me to think about the bigger picture, about whether mobile companies in South Africa are distributing their services fairly, and in relation to end-user volumes (number of users and volumes of data bought).

Parliament’s inquiry – through the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) – into data prices is not only timeous but important for South Africa’s strategic future. With digital disruption now undeniably on our doorstep, ensuring ease of access to millions is as much a priority as any of our other lofty development goals.

With cyberspace now an inescapable aspect of our lives, where information and communication are increasingly centred, ensuring connectivity is now as much a human right as water and sanitation.

Those unable to enter universities and colleges strained from influxes have to find alternative ways of accessing education. The internet is one such platform where this is possible.

With a youth populous struggling to penetrate our job market, providing access to a tool that broadens perspectives and allows for free flow of ideas is crucial. Corporates now demand school leavers and graduates who are not only well-read but able to keep pace with digital trends and tools (both current and forthcoming). The situation is only exacerbated when looking at how disparate our country is when it comes to opportunities and distribution of wealth.

Socio-economic disparities, so harrowingly painted by Statistics South Africa recently, only further highlight the need for hurried action in getting telecoms to become part of the development agenda.

The StatsSA 2016 household survey includes data sets which reveal a lot when it comes to internet use, which is predominantly mobile. Around 62% of the country’s populous uses mobile devices for connectivity, as connections with 3G (and more recently 4G) have now become commonplace for most smartphone owners. Most of this technological access and data usage however, is utilised by people in the middle income brackets.

Additionally, indices in the latest We Are Social Report show South Africa among the top 10 to top 20 among other countries in a number of indicators regarding internet use and access. Some of these include:

a) Internet penetration by country (26th)

b) Growth in internet users (12th)

c) Time spent on the internet/Average hours per day (4.59 hours on desktop and 3:03 hours on mobile) – placing us ahead of developed countries like the UK and United states.

Mobile share of web traffic also sits around 78% - a jarring statistic if one looks at the disparity of user access between rich/poor and work/home. This is underpinned by a 148% connectivity ratio of phones to the population.

Stats SA’s harrowing [recent] release on poverty in South Africa, now approaching crisis levels, should be a soundboard for those in political office and corporate boards to make sure the doors of opportunity are opened and the train of relevance is maintained in a fast paced, changing world.

South Africa, after all the political malfeasance and race baiting, owes its citizens a path through which individual aspirations, ideas and sentiment can be shared freely.

The now infamous sloganeering in the form of #DataMustFall I sometimes feel detracts from the seriousness of the issue. The sheer volume of users, although quite large, have yet to fully exercise their consumer power.

Campaigns across social media calling for restrained use of platforms reliant on data don’t translate to results from those to whom protests are directed. With all the goings on in our current political and social climate, it may be that we have to wait a while before others start taking this issue up with more fervour.

- Jonathan Brady is an MA student in Population Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Howard College.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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