File photo: African News Agency (ANA)
File photo: African News Agency (ANA)

Held to ransom by high data costs

By Waseem Carrim Time of article published Dec 4, 2018

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It is refreshing that we have reached a point in our democracy where we are debating key policy issues on public platforms and seeing an increased level of active citizenry in the policy debates.

The policy issues range from land reform to the cost of data regulation and correcting the gender-based pay disparity. The debates give us insight into the policy decisions of political parties in the lead up to the elections next year.

The cost of data continues to receive a great deal of attention. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa is conducting a market inquiry into the costs while the parliamentary committee on telecommunications is holding public hearings on the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill.

I was disappointed to read MTN’s submissions to the parliamentary committee. MTN indicated in its written submissions that the bill was “unconstitutional, would violate property rights and discourage investment in the industry. The emotive nature of the language MTN used was what we would expect from AfriForum - not from one of biggest telecoms providers in Africa.

It is one thing to quote the Constitution when it benefits you - but our Constitution is not selective. When read in its entirety, it aims to treat all citizens equally. The concept of equality is a golden thread throughout the document. Yet, South Africa has become one of, if not the most, unequal countries in the world.

It is therefore necessary for progressive regulation to be introduced which can bridge the massive inequality gap. Big business continues to hide behind the stone wall of “business cannot be overregulated”. However, what happens when big business itself is contributing towards inhibiting the economy?

Monopolies, duopolies and oligopolies are not good for our economy. We are seeing first-hand the havoc Eskom can wreak on our economy. The hard truth is that Vodacom and MTN have become a duopoly. For example, it is inconceivable that in this age of technology data can expire - an intangible asset held by a consumer is ripped away at the end of the month if not used. 

This type of behaviour illustrates the significant market control that these entities possess, such that they can dictate the terms and conditions of the market. The services have become essential, so people have very little room to manoeuvre for their rights.

We have continuously argued that the barriers for entry into the economy is contributing towards unemployment and increasing inequality. As this relates to data costs, most jobs are advertised online and, with the high costs of data, people and young people are deprived the opportunity to apply for jobs and become meaningful contributors to the economy.

Information, which is key to the development of any population is denied through the information becoming inaccessible through cost. Even skills development, which can be done online through blended learning, is reduced through these prohibitive costs.

MTN and Vodacom are major players in the business community - and this new age requires out of the box thinking and a redesign of the box. Instead of pure rhetoric, what if the entities introduced a subsidised data voucher for a young unemployed work seeker? Or reduced telecommunications rates for those on social grants?

South Africa needs business to grow the economy. But South Africa also needs to listen to its citizen’s concerns. It cannot afford to ignore the information that suggests we have one of highest telecommunications costs in the world. It cannot stand by and watch more potential work seekers become discouraged work seekers.

Carrim is the chief executive of the National Youth Development Agency

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