#DataMustFall: Why SA’s data pricing needs a revolution

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 Brics-member countries.

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 world.

We’re in effect experiencing a regressive data market, where it, like many other things, is actually more expensive to be poor.  

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 global trends.

- Eleanor du Plooy runs the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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