Data and the poor in a time of Covid-19

The challenge in South Africa is that people in rural areas do not have access to the internet or data
The challenge in South Africa is that people in rural areas do not have access to the internet or data

The unexpected outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus, declared a national disaster by President Cyril Ramaphosa and a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, appears to be creating a disconnection. Still, the virtual hugs and tiptoe greetings are creating a Thuma Mina experience even with the disconnection.

In keeping with the policy mooted by the Wireless Open Access Network (Woan) – and given that part of its objectives include lowering the cost of data – spectrum allocation, particularly in rural areas, is critical as the virus continues to affect the economy.

Developed countries have many internet users. The challenge in South Africa is that people in rural areas do not have access to the internet or data because of the lack of telecommunications infrastructure. A primary reason for this is the income dynamics of rural dwellers, which limit their ability to purchase data.

The concern is also that the reduction in data costs agreed between the Competition Commission and Vodacom is not a delay tactic with regard to releasing the IM. How long can it take Icasa to read and evaluate information from 40 public respondents?
Sindi Mqutheni

The department of health and other government ministries have found a way to stay connected to the country’s vast population. Urban and township dwellers comfortably use the WhatsApp emergency number, and everyone uses media that depends on telecoms infrastructure.

The brothers and sisters in the rural divide are entirely dependent on WhatsApp services to communicate – if they are lucky enough to be situated in an area where transmission hubs exist. The common way to reach this population would be via SMS. This service still requires frequency and, in some cases, buying power.

While basic protection against contracting Covid-19 has to do with washing hands and keeping one’s social distance, the ability to report suspect cases depends on the population having access to the internet or data. In addition, if the virus finds its way into the mountainous rural communities, there will be no way to control it. And, as we know, hospital facilities are situated far from rural dwellers.

Is it therefore logical to say that the highest risk, in terms of control and visibility, is in the rural areas? Is it safe to say that the anticipated spectrum of Covid-19 exceeds the Woan spectrum in rural areas?

This is an opportune time for telecom companies to provide free access when it comes to sending out information about Covid-19 via the internet, as SMS messages can only provide minimal information.

Read: #DataMustFall: Vodacom slashes prices as MTN users must wait till month end

Woan aims to create competition, which will propel a drop in data costs. In light of this, Vodacom has recently agreed to lower its data costs by 30%. MTN has also followed suit and will lower its costs from mid-April. These reductions will assist consumers of data, particularly the rural dwellers.

Read: MTN drops 30-day data price by half from next month

However, it is not known if this data cost reduction will have a direct bearing on the anticipated outcome of the pending announcement by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) about the licensing process for high-demand spectrum. We await the release of Icasa’s Information Memorandum (IM) on the matter.

Icasa has presented a host of factors that have disrupted the telecoms sector while making the case for servicing a social need.

Various news articles indicate that the main players in the telecom industry have acknowledged the need for change and the fact that this change will create competition by bringing on board previously disadvantaged businesses and people. Board members in those entities will have to balance shareholder interest with social interest.

The concern is also that the reduction in data costs agreed between the Competition Commission and Vodacom is not a delay tactic with regard to releasing the IM. How long can it take Icasa to read and evaluate information from 40 public respondents?

Icasa must speed up processes to empower those in rural areas to receive lower data costs and access to information provided by spectrum allocation and Woan.

Mqutheni is chief executive of Cugy Consulting



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