Cape Town - Faster networks, better phones and consumers' own habits have all led to users' perceptions that their data is "disappearing", a Vodacom exec has told Parliament.
The portfolio committee on telecommunications and postal services was holding public hearings into the "cost to communicate" this week following the rise of the #DataMustFall campaign.
Executive head of innovation Jannie van Zyl on Wednesday dispelled the "myth" that people's data was depleting more rapidly.
“Data cannot disappear. It is consumed by your handset,” he told the committee.
“Sometimes you use your data; sometimes your handset uses it in the background that you don’t know about.”
He used the new Apple iOS upgrade as an example, where the update requires 1GB of data. Many consumers wouldn’t be aware of that, he said.
Network speed, better phones
In cases where active usage is the primary reason for “lost” data, Van Zyl said that three things drive quicker consumption.
“Networks are getting faster. The average speed on the networks is about 10-16mb/s, which is substantially faster than copper.
“That means data is being delivered to your phone much quicker.
“The second factor is that the handsets have more capability now in displaying this data. The content providers therefore make higher quality content available."
Two years ago, he said, smartphones would have by default chosen a standard definition YouTube video.
“Today, your handset automatically chooses the highest definition version available.”
Lastly, users’ behaviour patterns have changed rapidly in the past few years.
“People will sit in this room and take photos and upload them to Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp, and then friends will in turn download them.
“We've recently had to upgrade our uploading capabilities in terms of speed than it used to be in the past.
“Now, people think nothing of taking 20, 30 photos at a function and uploading it to Facebook.”
All of this together, resulted in more data being used, he said.
Why does my data expire?
Committee chairperson Mmamoloko Kubayi quizzed van Zyl on why she cannot keep a data bundle beyond a certain date after she has paid for it.
Van Zyl said the misunderstanding came from consumers’ perception of data as a "product".
“Data is not a commodity, or a consumable product that you can take home. It is a service,” he answered.
“Data flows are more like a river or a stream. It is constantly flowing 24/7, and when you activate your data bundle, you place it in the river and it gets carried down the stream.
“If you don’t activate it, that data is gone. It’s not like at the end of the month there’s all this data leftover that we can donate to a school.”
Can networks change this?
To further illustrate the point, he compared purchasing data to purchasing a 30-day license at a car park.
“If in those 30 days I do not use the parking complex, I cannot go there next month and ask them to let me park for free for the next 30 days to make up for it.”
He said networks could potentially extend the capabilities of their “car parks”, but 'building more parking spots' is more costly than managing their existing data allocation.
It was about balancing costs with efficiency, and there would be a cost implication in expanding, he explained.
Why is it so expensive?
Both Vodacom and MTN, who also presented before the commitee on Wednesday, said the freeing up of old bandwidth frequency currently occupied by radio and television stations would drive the costs of data down.
Radio and television broadcasters have been mandated to migrate off of the old frequencies, to new digital transmission services, but the process has stalled over the last half decade due to government bureaucracy.
It was this so-called "spectrum crunch" that made data that much more expensive in South Africa than other countries, they said.
Dr Carlos Rey-Moreno of Right2Know, who also presented on Wednesday, wasn't buying it, saying Vodacom's R16.5bn profit margin could be lowered to help reduce data costs so long.
- Read more here: EFF's Mokoena roasts Vodacom over data costs
MTN meanwhile told the committee it has decreased voice and data tariffs by 58% and 73% respectively in the last five years, despite an increase in costs due to a struggling economy.
Read more here: Our data costs have decreased 73% in 5 years - MTN