ANC wants govt to step up efforts to reduce data costs

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
Johannesburg, 13 Aug 2018
The ANC says the high cost of data services negatively impacts citizens' ability to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy.
The ANC says the high cost of data services negatively impacts citizens' ability to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy.

Furore around #DataMustFall has once again erupted, only this time it is the African National Congress (ANC) calling for action on the cost to communicate in SA.

Following the ANC's Lekgotla last week, the governing party issued a statement expressing concerns about the negative impact the high cost of data services has on ordinary South Africans.

According to the ANC, high data costs mean the majority of citizens are unable to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy, and further stifles the growth and development of small businesses.

"The ANC believes the lowering of the cost of data will be a catalyst for economic growth. It will unlock economic opportunities and thus contribute to economic growth and job creation.

#DataMustFall frenzy

Dating back to 2016, South Africans have been vocal about their displeasure in regard to the cost to communicate. Citizens took to social media to complain about high mobile data costs under the banner #DataMustFall.

Initially, the social media campaign was led by radio and media personality Thabo 'Tbo Touch' Molefe. The campaign resulted in Parliament's portfolio committee on telecommunications and postal services spending two days in September 2016 hearing submissions from government, civil society organisations, telecoms operators and the public on the cost to communicate using mobile data.

This led to the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) in July 2017 announcing its intention to conduct an inquiry to determine the priority markets in the electronic communications sector, followed by the publication of the discussion document this year.

This year in June, the regulator announced plans to hold public hearings on the cost to communicate in SA. It said this was part two of the cost to communicate programme, including the reduction of data prices in SA.

The Competition Commission also joined the list of local authorities to probe the high price of data services in SA by initiating its own inquiry last August. The commission has indicated its inquiry will be done by the end of August.

With this in mind, the ANC says it wants to see government work with stakeholders, such as the regulator and mobile operators, to ensure implementation of important policies, as well as move swiftly in finding an amicable solution on the disputes about the "Code of Conduct for Electronic Communications Services".

"The ANC encourages government to take urgent steps to ensure full implementation of all policies and regulations in support of the #DataMustFall campaign, working together with the regulator ICASA and all mobile operators in our country."

Adrian Schofield, ICT veteran and programme consultant at the Institute of Information Technology Professionals SA, says it seems the ANC is no longer a united party, holding firmly onto the reins of government.

"A call from the party to government to implement policies formulated by the party and adopted by government demonstrates that the one sees the other as a separate entity no longer under its control. This is a shift from the position that has endured for a quarter of a century, where the ANC acted as if it was the government, taking little heed of government's broader responsibilities to the nation than just the wishes of the party."

Thus, he says, the change in leadership obviously is a catalyst for the expression of opinions from the members of the party, especially from those who have an eye on the 2019 elections. "We can expect to hear more calls for action and promises of said action during the run up to the national elections."

Spectrum paralysis

ICT policy and regulatory expert Charley Lewis says with the revised ECA Amendment Bill still under wraps, and the wholesale open access network (WOAN) still a subject of controversy, SA remains in a state of paralysis regarding high-demand spectrum.

Mobile operators have been calling for the urgent release of spectrum to increase service provider coverage, improve quality of service and reduce costs for a number of years now.

However, government's proposed shake-up of the previous policy framework has resulted in spectrum allocation delays. The National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper released in September 2016 favours an "open access regime". This is in the form of the WOAN, which is supposed to be "a public-private sector-owned and -managed consortium", and which garnered criticism from many stakeholders in the sector.

According to the ANC statement, the release of spectrum for mobile telecoms services is expected to resolve most of the constraints experienced by mobile operators and also accelerate the roll out of broadband networks in rural areas, particularly the WOAN earmarked in the policy.

"The recent ANC Lekgotla has also resolved that government must urgently issue policy for the allocation of radio frequency spectrum to the WOAN, existing operators and new entrants before the investment summit planned for October this year."

Schofield notes the challenge for the government, as differentiated from the ANC, is that the proposed route to achieving #DataMustFall is meeting significant resistance from the service providers who do not believe that ideas such as the WOAN are feasible. "It is unrealistic to think that a policy can be imposed on a complex environment involving many billions of rands at the stroke of a pen.

"The advocates of #MustFall movements have to recognise the funding has to come from somewhere; we first have to stop the haemorrhaging through waste and corruption before we can apply the resources where they belong," he adds.

More needs to be done

While there have been small efforts by the country's mobile operators to reduce the cost of data, the ANC is of the view more still needs to be done.

The ANC says it is encouraged that some operators have taken the first step to lower data prices since the popular call for lowering data costs. However, the party states, this is not enough. "The mobile operators must demonstrate goodwill and lower data prices and allow government to resolve the allocation of new spectrum."

Lewis agrees: "Well, it's true that data prices remain unacceptably high, as recent figures from Point Topic and Research ICT Africa show. And high data prices mean lower levels of Internet usage and reduced uptake of broadband services and content.

"On the one hand, the ANC's call is welcome, since it increases public pressure to have data prices forced down. On the other hand, it's a little disingenuous, when it is the very policies and policy paralysis of the ANC government that have kept data prices unnecessarily high in the first place.

"For instance, SA Connect, the country's broadband policy, has been left to languish on the back burner for the last several years. We have already missed the SA Connect target of providing 5Mbps broadband to 50% of the population by 2016, and the Broadband Council is nowhere to be seen, with many of its high-level appointees having resigned."

Lewis points out the regulatory interventions in the pipeline may serve to reduce data prices.

"The ongoing data services market inquiry by the Competition Commission is set to complete its work by the end of this month. ICASA is also expected shortly to issue its findings from its priority markets review, which is already leaning towards prioritising market segments with key impact on retail data prices. This should in turn enable ICASA to impose the necessary pro-competitive conditions on those market segments, as it did with mobile termination rates," he concludes.