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MTN in court showdown over zero-rating of education sites

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Mobile network operator MTN and DG Murray Trust are heading to court in a legal showdown over the zero-rating of local educational Web sites run by public benefit organisations (PBOs).

The DG Murray Trust, which advocates SA’s development through public innovation and strategic investment, has launched a court application to compel MTN to zero-rate the Web sites, which it says, were officially approved, but the telco has not actioned.

According to the trust, the Department of Basic Education approved a list of 39 PBO Web sites on 8 May 2020, and until last week, “only Telkom and other fixed-line operators had zero-rated the PBO sites”.

It adds Vodacom has also now complied, and as of Monday, 14 July 2020, it had zero-rated 19 of the PBO sites.

MTN is denying the allegation of non-compliance and says it will oppose the court challenge.

“MTN, along with the other operators, is working with the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Communication and Digital Technologies to zero-rate the URLs that are approved through the Project Management Office (PMO) that has been formed by these two national departments,” says MTN SA’s executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan.

Contrarily, the trust say its application follows three months of engagement with network operators (Vodacom, MTN and Telkom Mobile) urging them to zero-rate these sites “as a matter of urgency to ensure the poorest 50% of children have some access to educational resources during the lockdown and over the next few months”.

It says there are at least 50 PBOs affected whose work is to reach the poorest children with learning resources, books, stories, language and maths.

According to the trust, many have designed their digital content to reach children and young people living in the poorest communities, delivered in bite-sized chunks and supported by SMS or basic chat functions.

These PBOs include Nal’ibali, FunDza, Funda Wande and SmartStart.

“We appreciate the huge demands on the network operators at this time, but if Telkom and Vodacom can zero-rate PBOs, so can MTN,” says Dr David Harrison, CEO of the DG Murray Trust.

“It cannot be that the poorest children constantly get pushed to the back of the queue. They should be right up front, precisely because they have no other educational resources. It is unconstitutional and it is unfair.”

In response, O’Sullivan says: “The PMO first prioritised universities and TVETs and has now directed the operators to prioritise schools. MTN has already zero-rated more than 450 of the full PMO list. Of the 40 PBOs demanded by the DG Murray Trust, eight have already been zero-rated and MTN continues to work through the list, ensuring that in time the list from the DG Murray Trust will be attended to.

“MTN places a premium on the safety, security and sustainability of its network for all its users and has chosen not to work with an aggregator service such as that proposed by the DGMT.

“Our people are working hard to complete the complex coding, vetting and security checking that is required for each URL and any claims to the contrary are vexatious and being made in extraordinarily bad faith.”

However, Harrison is not taking MTN’s reasoning.

“The DG Murray Trust has offered to pay for the creation of a single portal through which all PBOs can be easily zero-rated by the network operators, and which will provide a means of management and monitoring. This mechanism would take less than a few hours to integrate into network operator systems. However, MTN has chosen to ignore this offer while arguing under-capacity at the same time,” he argues.

He says in May 2020, over 100 000 South Africans signed the trust’s petition, requesting all mobile network operators to zero-rate the Web sites of PBOs as a matter of urgency.

The matter will be heard next month in the Western Cape High Court.

The Department of Basic Education has been listed as a second respondent and no relief is sought from it, unless it turns out to be true that network operators have been instructed to prioritise the Web sites of schools over public benefit organisations.

The Department of Communication and Digital Technologies is cited as a third respondent because of its oversight role, but no relief is sought from it.

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