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I don’t leave the house without my
cellphone – a cyborgian-like appendage I use to navigate not only cyberspace
but physical space, through GPS, too. On the few occasions where I do forget to
toss it into my bag before I walk out the door, I feel a little lost.
Besides the occasional phone call or SMS I
mainly use my cellphone to access the internet. And like me, many South
Africans have been feeling the pinch. The high cost of data has come under
increased scrutiny recently. Campaigns like #DataMustFall and
#SocialMediaBlackout raised the issue of high overall data costs, showing high
levels of dissatisfaction amongst the consumer base of our major mobile data
providers. According to research conducted by mobile phone package tracker
Tariffic, South Africa has the 2nd highest data contract prices compared to other
An initiative known as “Internet for All”,
a partnership between the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services
and the World Economic Forum (WEF), was launched in June to tackle high costs
and lack of market penetration amongst the marginalised. Plans include
extending Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) infrastructure to
underserved areas, decreasing data costs and offering ICT skills to South
Africans currently priced out of this market. And, facing public pressure, South
Africa's communications regulator, ICASA, started looking into reducing the high
costs of data.
Most South Africans who can access the internet
live in cities and suburbs and are relatively wealthy. Those of us who are
poorer and living in more rural areas, on average, are less able to access the
knowledge, information and opportunities to be found there.
Like the majority of South Africans I buy
data on an ad-hoc basis and the amount I spend varies from month to month. The
funny thing is, those of us buying data this way pay more for data when compared
to those who can afford longer-term contracts. If you can afford a mobile data
contract or to buy a large data bundle upfront, you’ll enjoy surprisingly low
data costs. If not, then you end paying among the highest data prices in the
We’re in effect experiencing a regressive
data market, where it, like many other things, is actually more expensive to be
Craige Fleischer, director of integrated
mobility at Samsung Electronics South Africa, says smartphone penetration has
passed the one third mark in South Africa. Yet despite this, the Internet Access in South Africa 2017
report shows that as much as a quarter of smartphone users do not use mobile
data on their phones.
So, despite having smartphones, many are
unable to afford the high costs of data. What this means is that the
unemployed, the poor, those looking to gain more education are cut off at the
knees, unable to access information to make decisions that the rest of us can
find only a few keystrokes or screen taps away. The poor and unemployed are cut
off from the digital world of real time information and opportunities.
This needs to change. A smartphone is not a
luxury. It is a mini computer that can be made more powerful for those seeking
jobs and starting businesses and getting further education. It is a gateway
device to a world of information that can be turned into knowledge and can then
be used for individual and social change.
Imagine what it would mean for the
country’s mobile digital environment if everyone had access to a reasonable smartphone
and affordable data.
We’d have a nation where mobile digital
environments are inclusive, offers users – no matter where they are - access to
innovative ways to do business, perform various transactions, apply for jobs,
look up information and so much more. It also connects us to one another. Human
to human, in ways that even a decade or so ago was almost unimaginable.
The use of digital technology coupled with
affordable internet access offers a real opportunity to advance growth. In
South Africa, where high unemployment and job scarcity has become a permanent
feature of our social landscape, especially among the youth, having access to
the internet offers a portal to alternative avenues for job creation and income
generation. But it goes beyond its impact on the economy. It opens up a world
of information and this is particularly revolutionary in terms of what this
could mean for the marginalised and disenfranchised.
There is power and potential for social and
economic transformation through accessible data. And South Africa’s mobile
players need to respond to this need, putting SA data costs more in line with
- Eleanor du Plooy runs the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.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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