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How realistic is free basic data in the country?

Photo: File

Photo: File

Published Feb 24, 2022


While the digital divide is a real problem, experts question who would foot the bill after Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Khumbudzo Ntshavheni in her state of the nation debate stated that every South African would be given access to the internet as a core utility.

Earlier this month Ntshavheni said advancements in technology such as 5G and the planned release of valuable data spectrum would lead to the government offering ‘prescribed minimum data’ to the home.

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“Data has become a new utility like water and electricity that our home needs. At some point, a South African household, despite whether they are rich or poor, will be given access to 10GB per month, because that is what the government will deliver,” Ntshavheni said.

According to global market intelligence firm IDC, the growing digital divide is a problem in South Africa and needs to be addressed at policy level.

Jonathan Tullett, a senior research manager, IT Services, sub-Saharan Africa at IDC said, “Being digitally disadvantaged is more brutal than many people realise. It means having inferior access to education, to citizen services, to employment opportunities, to healthcare, to communicating with far-flung family and to financial services.”

The digital divide was an amplifier of the wealth divide, instead of being the great leveller the internet was envisaged to be.

“The Covid-19 lockdowns has shone a stark spotlight on the difference between people who can easily pivot to working and educating from home with their home offices, fibre connections and backup power and those who struggled. That’s the amplifier, turned up to 11,” Tullett said.

The divide hurts individuals, their communities, and their country as the world moves through greater digitisation.

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“If South Africa can’t plug in to modernised supply chains because we lack the skills or tools or infrastructure, we’ll lose out to neighbours who can. Executing a plan to narrow that divide should be a top priority for multiple departments of government,” he said.

University of Johannesburg’s School of Economics professor Miriam Altman said although free basic data was a great idea, however, 10GB free basic data for all would mean that the government would have to pay for this facility.

“She may have in mind that it would be delivered free as a service obligation, but that approach would not be commercially viable. The basic amount is quite considerable and more than what most households need at this point. The purpose of free basic data is to ensure that everyone is online as needed and not constantly scrambling for it, as many low income people do,” said Altman.

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She said Ntshavheni would also need to determine if she meant households or individuals as most people used mobile data meaning that it would likely need to be linked to the individual and not the home.

“Having said that, the most urgent issue is to ensure that there is full coverage and access to services in low income communities and across all government services and buildings,” Altman said.

Old Mutual Investment Group chief economist Johann Els said that he doubted very much whether South Africa had the money available for the investment needed to supply each household with 10GB data every month.

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“So, I think this will turn out to be a very very long-term project. I will be surprised if they reached this target within the next 10 years,” Els said.

He said if the country could manage to find the money and invest and deliver this, then it would likely have a hugely beneficial impact on households and on businesses. “

It would significantly reduce the cost of doing business and would provide the population with cheap and easy access to information,”Els said.

Tullett said the easiest way to give everyone 10Gb would probably be to make the mobile network operators do it, and work out a subsidy model. Ultimately, the cost to the network would be passed on to other customers either through their bills, or through tax and the networks would not be out of pocket. But Tullett said mobile networks were not the only option for this. Municipal wi-fi delivered via base stations on government buildings was another way.

Tullett said universal access was the essential first step, which had stalled in government for years. After access, it would be services and education as giving people access to the internet without educating them about what it could do for them was empirically a bad idea. Studies into the impact of providing access without guidance had shown it was a very wasteful exercise, he said.

“Once people are online and productively active, the questions of how much data they need and how fast their connection should be become relevant, and you need to have a way to find answers. But we’re quite a long way from that mattering.”

He said the most ideal thing would be a concrete plan to make progress on delivering universal broadband access, a digital transformation plan (with KPIs) for government services such as education, social services, and healthcare, and then a plan to periodically review the assessment of what constituted a minimum digital service level in terms of speed, data, and so on.

Given Majola is a Business Report multimedia reporter.