Icasa wants companies to lower data cost during coronavirus outbreak

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa is asking telecom companies to consider lowering the cost of data in a bid to ensure productivity during the period the coronavirus outbreak.

The regulator cited an increased need for internet connectivity in the face of a growing number of employees working from home, as well as early school closures, as part of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the deadly virus.

"Icasa is requesting all network service providers to heed the call to enable the country to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, by facilitating easy and affordable, and/or free access to data," the regulator said on Thursday.

It said it was engaging the sector on possible ways of radio frequency spectrum relief, for the duration of the declared state of disaster to ease congestion, ensure good quality of broadband services, and lower the cost to consumers.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday declared the virus a national disaster, as the number of infections shot up. Some 150 people were infected as of Thursday afternoon. The spread of coronavirus has forced schools and university to shut down early for the first term break, while some companies have instructed employees to work from home.

"In this context it is therefore critical that the Authority consider regulatory concessions or relaxations to enable the sector to meet the demands of the business unusual environment occasioned by the pandemic," said ICASA’s Acting Chairperson, Keabetswe Modimoeng.   

Free pay-TV channels

Responding to the proposal, MTN said it was exploring various options on the matter and would make an announcement in the coming days, highlighting that it was already running a strong digital education support programme, which supports school learners.

"Among several education focused initiatives, we have already zero-rated over 100 websites including those of several academic institutions," said spokesperson Jacqui O’Sullivan.

Vodacom recently reached a settlement with the Competition Commission to slash data bundles by at least 30% and provide free internet access to the poor, as demanded by the Commission in December.

From 1 April, a one gigabyte of Vodacom data will cost no more than R99, compared to the current R149, translating to a 34% price decrease.

The company said it would ensure that South Africans are connected and "businesses continue to run using remote working in this time of national challenge".

Apart from mobile telecommunication operators, broadcasters and the post office were also urged to come up with plan to ease the burden on consumers. Pay-TV licencees open their audio and television bouquets to consumers who do not subscribe to their services.

DStv on Thursday informed customers that it had "free access" to eight 24-hour news channels, in response to Covid-19. This means households that are not subscribers will now access to BBC, CNN, Sky News, Aljazeera, euronews, Newzroom Afrika, eNCA, and SABC News at no cost.

Icasa said it had asked the postal service to advise it of measures they intend to take "to assist customers during this disaster period."

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