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Advocacy organisation urges telcos to provide free lockdown data

Read time 4min 20sec
Koketso Moeti, social activist and founder of Amandla.mobi.
Koketso Moeti, social activist and founder of Amandla.mobi.

Advocacy organisation Amandla.mobi is calling on SA’s mobile network operators to provide low-income South African consumers with free monthly data and free SMSes, and zero-rate all local news Web sites during the lockdown period.

The independent community advocacy organisation, which seeks to build a more just SA through its mobility work, was at the forefront of the social media campaign #DataMustFall, which drew the attention of politicians, the public and regulators, to put pressure on operators to make mobile Internet access more affordable.

In its latest campaign, Amandla.mobi has submitted over 500 000 signatures to local mobile network operators Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom, and has been engaging them to help address SA’s digital divide by providing low-income consumers with at least 3GB of free monthly data and five free SMSes per day for three months, and to commit to extend this for another three months if the current COVID-19-related lockdown period is extended.

“The current crisis has amplified existing inequalities in SA, one such being the digital divide – a long-term problem that goes beyond the immediate crisis. Plans for universal, free access to connectivity should be prioritised,” says Koketso Moeti, social activist and founder of Amandla.mobi.

“Connectivity enables people to access critical services they may need; for example, gender-based violence and medical services, especially in a time when more services are going online. For some citizens, not being online can make the difference between safely accessing much-needed income, or missing out on financial support like the Social Relief of Distress Grant.”

With the majority of low-income consumers being dependent on mobile devices for their connectivity, Moeti believes action by telcos is the easiest way to ensure immediate access for those who need it most, given the urgency brought about by the COVID-19 crisis.

“While the National Department of Health has done well to keep people informed, access to secondary sources of factual information will help support their efforts – being able to access credible reliable information could save lives,” she adds.

Giving back

Discussing whether the telcos, which have revenue targets to meet, can afford to give away free mobile products and services only a few months after significantly slashing their data prices, Moeti points out the fight against the pandemic means it’s business unusual for all sectors, noting that telcos have been profiteering during and before the current crisis.

“It is worth bearing in mind that mobile operators are part of an industry that is benefiting quite substantially from this crisis, given the increased reliance on the Internet and other forms of communication technologies, particularly during the hard lockdown.

“As we have consistently pointed out in the past, mobile network operators, with a particular reference to MTN and Vodacom, have been profiteering from the exploitation of low-income consumers for years, so we see this as a practical, much-needed way to give back to the very same consumers and make up for past harm,” states Moeti.

In its latest business update, Vodacom said its group service revenue was up 7.6% and group revenue grew by 5.6%, benefitting from strong customer demand for data during the lockdown period.

In MTN’s trading update for the past six months ending 30 June 2020, the telco said it is expecting a 140% increase in earnings.

Responding to Amandla.mobi’s call, the telcos told ITWeb they have made significant progress in reducing the cost to communicate and are committed to keeping South African citizens and communities connected during the lockdown, including having zero-rated a number of educational sites.

A Cell C spokesperson told ITWeb: “Despite the constrained financial circumstances that Cell C is in currently, we have been collaborating and cooperating with many stakeholders to give access to information and zero-rate important sites.

“Cell C customers get daily free services – seven call me back messages, five Cell C to Cell C SMSes, 20MB of free usage on Free Basics by Facebook, and many other value-add services to keep informed and connected to loved ones at this time.”

Vodacom says in addition to supplying university students with free data: “Vodacom spends just over a billion rands per annum providing free Internet services by subsidising all zero-rated sites on the network.”

Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN, says there is no doubt the impact of the COVID-19 virus on communities across SA has required an urgent prioritising of zero-rated services, specifically in the health and education sectors.

“MTN has stepped in to help communities and we have had immense success in our numerous initiatives, including supporting online schooling and handing over 127 data SIM cards with preloaded monthly data to 20 NGOs, community centres and school learners for three to six months,” comments O’Sullivan.

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