Network providers aim to reduce digital divide

SA's four biggest network providers aim to bridge the country's digital divide gap by offering low and no cost services.
SA's four biggest network providers aim to bridge the country's digital divide gap by offering low and no cost services.

The biggest network providers in the country, namely Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom, are increasingly offering low cost and zero-rated services, in an effort they hope will help bridge the country's digital divide.

Vodacom has recently partnered with Facebook to launch an initiative allowing their customers to use the basic version of Facebook for free. 'Facebook flex' is part of Vodacom's new 'Siyakha' (we are building) project which it says is aimed at bridging the digital divide in South Africa. According to Vodacom, this is the first of many initiatives to follow as part of this project that will offer free access to other services including healthcare, entertainment and educational platforms.

Nyimpini Mabunda, chief officer Consumer Business Unit at Vodacom, says that Vodacom's Siyakha initiative is an important part of Vodacom's effort to ensure digital inclusion for all its customers. "Network operators like ourselves have a role to play in reducing the digital divide, particularly between those in urban and rural areas. In all our efforts we are mindful of the immense pressures that consumers face which are largely associated with the cost to communicate. The popularity and the extensive use of social media services such as Facebook as a means of communication have made it a necessity, rather than a luxury."

This project will work similarly to Cell C's subscription to the Facebook 'free basics' platform launched in 2015, which also allows a free use of a basic version of Facebook together with other similar free services. "Cell C has always been supportive of over-the-tops (OTTs) and embracing partnerships with them to the benefit of consumers," says Karin Fourie, executive head of communications at Cell C, who also applauds Vodacom's realisation that partnership with OTTs provides good value to customers.

Larry Annetts, chief consumer officer at MTN, says MTN works tirelessly towards bridging the digital divide and has long provided its customers with initiatives aimed to do this. "At the beginning of 2014, MTN SA announced that it will be offering its customers free access to Wikipedia as part of its strategy to bridge the digital divide and foster digital inclusion. The decision to zero-rate access to Wikipedia is a testament to MTN's quest to open up access to digital content.

"MTN later zero-rated Twitter and it recently zero-rated access to its own video service 'VU', and further provided free access to online curriculum content for university students last year. The decision to zero-rate access to these applications is informed by our strategy of catering to the needs of our customers, fostering digital inclusion, leading the delivery of a bold, new digital world and supporting government's 2030 Vision of driving universal access to broadband services."

Telkom says it has always strived to provide the public with affordable data access through a number of low-cost initiatives including 'FreeMe', a product it started last year which it says allows customers to obtain data costing at a third of what the next lowest operator offers.

Telkom's spokesperson, Jacqui O'Sullivan, says it has long endeavoured to bridge the digital divide by offering compelling value on both its mobile and fixed line data offers. "Telkom has also stepped up to the plate at times when we were most needed. An example of this is when we took the decision to provide free mobile data to students who could not access academic materials due to the ongoing student protests at the end of last year", says O'Sullivan.

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