Key for all learners to have internet access
But I wonder whether the phrase is not an unfortunate, since what we really mean is “physical distancing” from other people. In fact, remaining socially connected or in close contact through digital means is crucial to our sanity and safety, and to keep the economy going.
Even though the government is easing the lockdown and reopening the economy, it seems that only about 1.5 million workers will be able to return to work. Most of us will have to work and study from home - a situation that will probably continue until we reach Level 1.
This is why the telecoms companies play such a crucial role in these trying times. They provide the vital infrastructure that enables social connectivity in a world of compulsory physical distancing. And it is not just about keeping the infrastructure running, but also assisting the vast majority of users who are on prepaid plans or have lost their income to stay in contact with one another and the outside world.
Since it is of the utmost importance for schoolchildren and university students that online education continues during the lockdown, the mobile operators decided to continue with zero-rated data costs when pre-approved educational programmes are accessed online - an initiative that started during the #FeesMustFall campaign.
Vodacom has significantly increased its server capacity to ensure that its e-School is available to all of its subscribers. The platform offers learning material for Grade R to Grade 12 in all 11 official languages. The material is fully aligned with the CAPS curriculum.
MTN aksi offers a digital education support programme for learners and zero-rated more than 100 educational websites, which include many websites of South African academic institutions.
The Western Cape Education Department launched an e-portal that features 8200 free resources, including video clips, audio clips, digital documents, lessons and lesson plans to assist children who have to study from home.
Due to the huge number of people accessing the internet from home, the mobile operators had to struggle to make additional bandwidth available to ease the congestion. One of the main factors contributing to the bandwidth congestion is the popularity of the streaming of videos and movies. During the lockdown, a record number of people signed up with entertainment companies such as Netflix or ShowMax and are watching bandwidth-gobbling movies or YouTube videos daily.
To reduce the congestion, ensure good quality broadband services, and lower the cost to consumers, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) temporarily issued new spectrum or frequencies. This eased the burden of regulatory compliance for the telecoms sector and addressed the bandwidth congestion.
But the call of Icasa on telecoms companies to lower their data costs in the lockdown has fallen on deaf ears.
Instead of lowering the fees, particularly for the poorest of the poor using prepaid services, they merely complained about the massive decline in revenue of 3 to 5percent and the huge roaming losses of billions of rand due to a decrease in the number of tourists during the lockdown.
None of the telecoms companies in South Africa solved the core problem of connectivity, namely exorbitant data costs. Vodacom and MTN, for instance, did lower their fees from April 1, but not to assist people in isolation, however, only after a settlement with the Competition Commission to cut the cost of data bundles by 30 percent.
Fortunately, many other organisations have gone the proverbial extra mile to ensure connectivity and social closeness in a time of physical distance.
DStv, for instance, opened up eight 24-hour news channels. Households that are not subscribers can access the BBC, CNN, Sky News, Al-Jazeera, Euronews, Newzroom Afrika and SABC News at no cost.
Another group that stepped up to bring people together in the time of physical distancing are the musicians. Suddenly there is a plethora of virtual choirs and orchestras, and we are able to listen to Andrea Bocelli singing in the famous Duomo in Milan; Keith Urban, while his wife, Nicole Kidman, is dancing; the cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s Cello Suite No 3 dedicated to health-care workers and closer to home the Libertas Choir singing Hot Gates and many more. Some musicians even have daily livestreams from their homes.
And all this is free and from the comfort and safety of your home.
But there is one caveat: whether you can afford the data and have access to the internet. This is why it is important that educational content is zero-rated so that disadvantaged students can get free and fair access to e-learning opportunities.
But the South African telecoms companies will have to go much further to ensure that people are not excluded from social connectivity due to exorbitant data costs. Despite this month’s cuts in the cost of data, social connectedness and inclusion in South Africa, it is still prejudiced towards the poor in isolation.
We will all need to do a great deal more to build a sense of community and solidarity in this challenging time of physical distancing.
Professor Louis CH Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist.