Stop gentrifying our Internet #DataMustFall
By Mia Arderne
|Issued by: Oxbridge Academy|
[Johannesburg, 6 October 2016]
Unpacking the digital divide
The #DataMustFall movement in South Africa hasn't come a moment too soon. South Africa's mobile Internet remains one of the most expensive in the world. This problem is about more than the inconvenience of being overcharged. It's about more than the cost of communication. It invokes issues of limiting education and entrepreneurship, perpetuating inequality and reserving access to global progress.
It invokes the exclusion of an entire economic class from the biggest channel of opportunity available in the world today. In South Africa, it's a mistake to think that gentrification can be limited to physical space. The data cost structures in this country have made the online space an elite one.
If you've been anywhere near social media in the last couple of weeks, you would have seen the above figures posted. This is the picture that ignited the #DataMustFall movement. While these figures have been questioned on points of relative cost of living and coverage, a data cost comparison between BRICS-member countries shows that South Africa is the second most expensive and "134% more expensive than the cheapest prices in the group".[Source] Elements of context, accessibility and population density may be required for deeper comparisons than the above image.
On the TechGirl blog, Jade Brennan poses the question: "So why is affordable data a human right?" [Source] She answers by bringing to light three main points: freedom of expression, entrepreneurship, and the increased divide between rich and poor. The latter point encompasses education. According to The Verge, the UN has condemned "Internet access disruption as a human rights violation".[Source]
Given the rise of open access and online education, digital rights are to be taken seriously. The digital divide is particularly severe in South Africa. According to the Mail & Guardian: "A recently released ICT Africa report says lower-income South Africans are spending 20% of their income on one gigabyte of data".[Source]
Apart from the disproportionately expensive mobile data prices, fibre-optic cables have been rolled out almost exclusively in affluent neighbourhoods. This results in shamelessly gentrified access to faster, more reliable Internet in the home, in addition to largely unaffordable mobile data.
According to BusinessTech: "Those to receive fibre first are metropolitan and wealthier suburbs who can afford the service, and once those areas are fitted with fibre, poorer areas will receive fibre as the network grows and becomes more affordable… Unfortunately, no exact timeline is given for this process."[Source]
Profound effect on future of education
The lack of affordable Internet access excludes a vast number of young South Africans from the opportunity of e-learning. Given the current education crisis in South Africa, this is an unforgivable abuse of capitalism by what the EFF rather aptly calls "delinquent mobile operators". [Source]
According to Kerwin Lebone of the Institute of Race Relations: "What's keeping prices up is uncompetitive behaviour by Telkom. Most of the high data charges are because service providers have to ‘rent' spectrum from Telkom‚ which virtually owns all communications infrastructure in the country." [Source]
Thabo "Tbo Touch" Molefe, radio personality and founder of the #DataMustFall campaign, took #DataMustFall to Parliament and addressed the Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services on 21 September 2016, after receiving incredible online support for his campaign. According to TimesLive, Molefe's campaign was inspired by "the challenges faced by young people, especially students, when it comes to accessing information due to high data costs".[Source]
Denying lower income groups the prospect of affordable and accessible education online in the face of #FeesMustFall protests, in a country where the vast majority can't afford tertiary education, is reprehensible. Furthermore, denying people access to the information world and occupancy of the online space means expelling individuals from a universal conversation based on class. In South Africa, this directly contributes to longstanding socioeconomic disparities and structural inequalities.
Fortunately, the landscape seems to be changing with regard to South Africa's gentrified Internet since Molefe called for providers to drop their prices within 30 days. The government has been responsive regarding operators restructuring their data prices. According to IOL, Mmamoloko Kubayi, chair of the Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services, the networks need to either "trim data costs or the National Assembly will order them to do so". Afrihost has responded with a promotion that you can read about here. And Wireless Business Solutions – backed by former FNB CEO Michael Jordaan, former FirstRand co-founder Paul Harris, and Design Indaba founding CEO Ravi Naidoo – aims to introduce a 4.5G network that is faster and less expensive, as early as next year. [Source]
Most recently, a new ICT policy was approved for a "single public-private sector owned wireless open access network (WOAN)", according to Fin24. As the government steps in, this should hopefully shatter the existing data cost structure of the network giants and what Hans Pienaar of BD Live calls their "ambush capitalism".
As Pienaar writes: "In its pursuit of maximum profit, capital's natural tendency is to concentrate and pursue monopoly." [Source] Of course, we may be faced with a new set of problems, but change is on the cards. So watch this space. Not to be too cynical, but in the meantime, here's a link to a list of free WiFi spots in the country: Where to Find Free Internet in South Africa.
Click here for an infographic on #DataMustFall
List of sources: