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Shelve ‘insufficient’ SA Connect, develop updated broadband plan

Read time 6min 30sec

South Africa needs a new national broadband plan if it is to make the Internet accessible and affordable for everyone.

This is the word from Onica Makwakwa, head of the Africa region at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), speaking to ITWeb on the occasion of the release of its broadband affordability report.

The 2020 Affordability Report shows that 57 countries in its survey, which include SA, are yet to meet the UN Broadband Commission’saffordability threshold of 1GB data for no more than 2% of average monthly income.

In the case of SA, 1GB of mobile data averages about 2.17% of the average monthly income, according to Makwakwa. “The UN Broadband Commission recommends ‘1 for 2’, which is 1GB of data for no more than 2%...we do not meet the affordability standards right now.

“If we delve deeper into this 1GB of data, we are assuming a person can be connected in a meaningful way with 1GB. We often know that’s not accurate; you need a little bit more than 1GB per month. We are definitely not affordable at all, especially for people who want to be connected in a meaningful way.”

Affordability of 1GB mobile broadband across low- and middle-income countries, 2015–2019.
Affordability of 1GB mobile broadband across low- and middle-income countries, 2015–2019.

The Affordability Report looks at the state of policy progress in bringing down the cost of Internet access and points to the importance of effective national broadband plans in providing the conditions for Internet prices to decline.

It includes the Affordability Drivers Index (ADI), which summarises in a single score an assessment of the drivers of Internet affordability in the various countries. The ADI covers 72 countries and focuses on two key aspects of driving affordability: telecoms infrastructure and access to the Internet.

This year’s report highlights that data on policy and prices are trending in the right direction; however, the challenge of getting to universal Internet access still persists.

“In the past five years, mobile broadband has become more affordable, and ADI scores have risen in most countries across all three regions we study – Africa, Latin America and Caribbean, and the Asia-Pacific region – signalling improvement in broadband policies.

“While declining prices can be explained in part by general improvements in technology and other efficiencies, strong government policy is key to reducing costs and making sure Internet access is affordable to all.”

Broadband plan disconnect

The A4AI report cites national broadband plans (NBPs) as a necessity to bring down prices and ensure inclusive growth, and with clear targets, the plans provide an agreed roadmap for all stakeholders and create accountability for continued progress.

According to the report, most countries (90% of those studied) have some kind of NBP; however, the quality of these plans varies widely.

In addition, 52 countries (80% of plans) set at least one target around 4G coverage, fixed access, rural access, device costs, or Internet prices.

Even though the country has an NBP in the form of South Africa Connect (SA Connect), Makwakwa is of the view that it is “quite insufficient”.

“SA Connect is one of the oldest from our data sets of an active national broadband plan and when you go through it, you will realise that it did not set any specific targets for 4G coverage,” says A4AI’s Africa head. “Today we are in a dynamic state, things change so quickly.

“There are no specific targets for rural access and specific targets for fixed access. It [SA Connect] did not set specific targets and that makes it very difficult to monitor and hold people accountable.

“As this is a national broadband plan, it needed to have a specific target for when they will reach how many people and by which year. It has none of that, there’s no target on data costs and there’s no target on device affordability.”

SA Connect, first announced in 2013 by the then Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, is the national broadband project identified by government to meet the technology goals of the National Development Plan of creating an inclusive information society.

Onica Makwakwa, head of Africa region at the Alliance for Affordable Internet.
Onica Makwakwa, head of Africa region at the Alliance for Affordable Internet.

Makwakwa advocates that the country needs a new national broadband plan, with broad consultation from all the stakeholders, including civil society.

“We absolutely need a new broadband plan for South Africans because if you think about how much has changed in terms of the Internet to when SA Connect was developed to now, we should all be able to accept that it needs a reset.

“In terms of using the Internet, it sometimes seems our plans are far more advanced than the investment made in the infrastructure to actually make sure there is capacity at all community levels to participate in online activity.”

Furthermore, she advises the plan must set some specific targets around affordability, pointing to countries like Botswana and Nigeria as having much stronger national broadband plans, even passing SA in terms of the average affordability of mobile data.

“We’ve reached a point where we need to think about how to proactively adopt policies and positions that actually make the Internet accessible and affordable for everyone,” states Makwakwa. “The broadband plan has to articulate this for us, so that we have a mandate that actually says everyone must have access to the Internet based on this, by this time, rural connectivity, and public WiFi, etc.”

National Broadband Plans with targets, by theme.
National Broadband Plans with targets, by theme.

Responding to the Competition Commission’s efforts to bring prices down under the #DataMustFall banner, which saw mobile network operators drop costs to R99 for 1GB of data, Makwakwa cautions against promotional gimmicks.

“When the R99 price reduction came, the call for #DataMustFall was not just about the price of the data but it was also around the fact that the data expires. If I spend R99 and my data expires before I’ve even used it, then it’s really costing more than R99.

“Mobile operators in South Africa have consistently pushed back on ICASA with regards to data rollover.”

She highlights that Internet access costs have indeed fallen in SA since 2015, which is when the A4AI started doing its affordability report.

However, given the country’s high levels of inequality, this means Internet access is too expensive for much of the population.

“We’ve fallen down by about 12% for SA specifically; however, this is far less than the regional average for Africa, which is 60% in the years between 2015 and now.

“I find the 12% reduction in prices for South Africa to be quite disappointing because we are on the higher income level amongst all of the countries on the continent. If the continent as a whole has seen a 60% reduction in costs over five years and we are at 12%, then something is really stagnant in our market.”

Makwakwa concludes: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that the Internet is a lifeline; it calls upon government and all stakeholders to really focus on meeting the UN Broadband Commission’s ‘1 for 2’ affordability threshold, but also going beyond affordability to ensuring we are meeting meaningful connectivity for all citizens.”

* Graphs sourced from Alliance for Affordable Internet's 2020 Affordability Report.

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