Budget: Mboweni puts #DataMustFall on the agenda

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 20 Feb 2019
Government commits to ensure high-demand spectrum is licensed within the medium-term.
Government commits to ensure high-demand spectrum is licensed within the medium-term.

Budget 2019: Data costs must fall, stated finance minister Tito Mboweni, during the tabling of the 2019 National Budget Speech in Parliament today.

"My fellow minister [Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams] will shortly be issuing policy direction to the Independent Communications of SA (ICASA) for the licensing of spectrum.

"I will work relentlessly with the minister until this matter is resolved. This includes resourcing ICASA for this mandate."

Mboweni's comments echo president Cyril Ramaphosa's State of the Nation Address (SONA), in which he revealed swift action in regards to licensing high-demand spectrum will be taken.

During last year's SONA, Ramphosa told the joint sitting of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces that SA's prosperity depends on the country's ability to take full advantage of rapid technological change.

To back up the president's commitment, ICASA announced, last October, plans to license spectrum "by no later than the end of March 2019".

Mobile operators have been clamouring for spectrum for the last few years, as they need it to provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services.

Long-term fight

The hotly contested debate of lowering data costs dates 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.

The campaign resulted in Parliament's Telecommunications and Postal Services Portfolio Committee 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.

In July 2017, ICASA announced its intention to conduct an inquiry to determine the priority markets in the electronic communications sector. Last year, the regulator held 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 in August 2017.

At its manifesto launch, the ANC also turned its attention to the #DataMustFall cause.

Last year, the governing party called for action on the issue, saying 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.

With this in mind, the party promises to reduce the cost of data through the work of competition authorities and the communication regulator, ICASA. "Lowering the cost of data will be one of the major requirements in the licensing of the much-needed radio frequency spectrum this year."