Vodacom recently became the first mobile network operator to reach what has been described as a “historic settlement” with the Competition Commission – an independent statutory body established to regulate competition between firms in the market – following an inquiry into the data services market.
MTN has since announced price cuts which will lead to price drops in the cost of mobile data, as well as a basic package of access for low-income consumers.
While the actions of the Competition Commission are to be commended as they avoided a drawn-out, costly legal battle with the mobile network operators and prioritised the immediate relief for consumers, there is no doubt that mobile network operators got off lightly – given the decades of exploitation consumers have faced from them.
Shameel Joosub, chief executive officer of Vodacom, has, over the years, regularly claimed that South Africa’s mobile operators are “world-class networks”.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus, the disease that has led to a state of emergency in the country, is an opportunity for Vodacom and other mobile network operators to back up that claim.
To prove their commitment and make up for years of exploitation, they should provide low-income consumers with at least 3GB of data a month; five free SMSes a day and zero-rate all local news sites for at least the next three months, with a commitment to continue for another three should the pandemic not be contained.
There are several reasons this is crucial.
First, connectivity is key to ensure that people can access factual information about the outbreak.
We saw that, during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, misinformation spread as quickly as the disease, creating more deaths.
A study published in The Lancet, a highly respected UK medical journal, found that people had been bombarded with misinformation to the point that some people did not believe the Ebola outbreak was real, which decreased the likelihood of adopting preventive behaviour.
To keep people informed and proactively counteract misinformation in South Africa, there has been great effort to ensure people can access factual, reliable information about the virus by both the government and others.
One example of this is the data-free resource portal with updates on the pandemic set up by the government, which not only provides information, but also does myth-busting.
Although these efforts are commendable, because they help members of the public to keep informed about how to protect themselves, their loved ones and communities, this is not enough.
In a time of physical distancing, ensuring that people are able to keep abreast of what is happening in the world around them, is important.
To ensure that the public can do this, mobile network operators should immediately zero-rate all local news sites until the spread of the pandemic is contained.
Second, connectivity can help people struggling with violence, isolation and mental health issues.
Recently, physical distancing, which is limiting the physical contact we have with others, has been highlighted as a key way to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
This can be dangerous for some people.
While there are admittedly evidence gaps, from both the Covid-19 pandemic and other similar outbreaks, according to the World Health Organisation, risk of domestic violence increases in times of crisis.
According to a recent research report by UK Aid, “domestic violence organisations have observed increased household tension and domestic violence due to forced coexistence, economic stress and fears about the virus”.
As Naeemah Abrahams from the Medical Research Council noted: “When we tell people to go into isolation, we must ask them if they feel they are able to do this safely.”
We know in South Africa, for many women and children, this is not the case.
Abrahams said that data access would be critical to ensure that women are able to get the assistance and support they need, whether at shelters or by remote professional help, and to contact people who make up their support system, should their assistance be required.
And that’s not the only reason the mobile networks need to step up.
The Alan J Flisher Centre for Public Mental Health in Cape Town has expressed concern that the response to the pandemic makes little or no provision for mental health implications.
According to the centre, a key aspect for mental wellbeing, resilience and hope is being in contact with loved ones, feeling connected to broader society and psychosocial support.
This makes connectivity essential in a time of limited physical interaction.
These suggestions will come at an expense to the mobile network operators.
But it is not much when compared with how much they stand to potentially benefit from the turn to digital.
Across the world there is a recognition that this moment of potential crisis requires “all hands on deck”, if we are to pull through.
Struggling media organisations are making coronavirus-related content free to read to ensure that the public can stay informed.
In other places internet service providers are offering free or discounted internet services to keep people connected.
Locally DStv “is making its 24-hour news channels available online to all South Africans – even if you’re not a subscriber”.
Even the communications authority has voiced its support and is willing to make regulatory concessions for the duration of the declared state of disaster in an effort to ensure that mobile network operators make communication services available to all South Africans and have the capacity to deal with the expected surge in the use of data.
As we have seen in different parts of the world, overcoming this pandemic will require that every sector of society steps out of the “business as usual” logic.
This is an invitation to the mobile network operators to do just that, not only for our sake, but for their own because they, too, are institutions existing and dependent on the same society.
- Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has, over the years, worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. Last year she was announced as an Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity. She is an inaugural member of the Obama Foundation Fellowship and a member of the Aspen New Voices Senior Fellowship. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti
The piece has been updated since it was published. Initially, the article claimed that MTN had settled with the commission, which is untrue. MTN announced its own price reduction