File picture: Vahid Salemi/AP
File picture: Vahid Salemi/AP

In the New Normal mobile data is our fuel, so make it cheaper please

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 20, 2020

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Victor Kgomoeswana

Johannesburg - Six months ago, we were herded into seclusion by the National State of Disaster and subsequent lockdown. From tomorrow, we will be the closest to where the lockdown found us on 26 March.

What has been called the New Normal is upon us for good, but how ready is South Africa for this world in which information and communication technology (ICT) plays such a central role? One thing is certain: our current attitude towards ICT, Internet connectivity and the cost of data must be thoroughly revamped if not entirely jettisoned.

Covid-19 reminded us that basic hygiene is the centre piece of staying alive. It exposed how much money we wasted travelling to meetings and conferences that can be just as successfully conducted virtually. The pandemic highlighted the real VIPs, not the blue-light public representatives who run a country without ever tasting the pain of its daily traffic logjams, its dead-end public healthcare and education systems, or the mortal danger of living without armed protection.

South Africa has so far neglected digitising its economy on many fronts. We repeatedly missed the deadline of digital migration, failed to prioritise access to broadband, left the cost of data prohibitively high and never quite aligned the building of a robust ICT infrastructure to make the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) work for the majority of South Africans – all in the era when the world is trending towards making Internet access a basic human right.

We are behind several developing economies, especially fellow African states that are poorer and less developed than we are. For example, during the lockdown period, two reports came out to demonstrate this.

The first one was by the Oxford Business Group. It compared how countries in Africa, Asia, Middle East and Latin America responded to minimise the damage of Covid-19. The report in July placed Tunisia top of the pile. It commended the North African country for having increased its internet penetration from 13 percent in 2006 to 66 percent in 2019. South Africa is still around 55 percent, while Kenya is at 87 percent.

The other survey by Cable UK, compared “data from 5 554 mobile data plans in 228 countries… between 3 and 25 February…on the average cost of one gigabyte (1GB)”. South Africa was ranked 148th, way behind countries like Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and - the cheapest place in Africa to buy 1GB of mobile data by far – Somalia.

Yes, the country still battling to rebuild itself after more than two decades of being a failed state sells the fuel of the digital age for much less to its citizens than South Africa – the continent’s most developed country!

This should not surprise us. Although mobile networks came forward during the lockdown to zero-rate access to educational sites or services and help with contact tracing, we are all too familiar with the #DataMustFall movement. It took a ruling by the Competition Commission in December 2019 to force our mobile network operators to cut their tariffs by an additional 30 percent to 50 percent, after years of industry collusion and anticompetitive overpricing.

If social distancing is a cardinal ingredient of the New Normal and mobile data is its fuel – then making it affordable to all is as critical as restoring our battered economy; more desirable than prosecuting those suspected of PPE corruption; and equally urgent as making our economy inclusive of those who continue to be marginalised by our anti-poor policies.

* Victor Kgomoeswana is author of Africa is Open for Business, media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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