Zuma weighs in on data during his State of the Nation, but what’s the plan?

President Jacob Zuma assured that the cost of mobile data was on government’s agenda, but failed to elaborate on what efforts would be made during his 2017 State of the Nation address.

Arguably, most South Africans tuned-in to the 2017 State of the Nation address for the political bunfight that saw the EFF manhandled out of Parliament, the DA walk out, and just how President Zuma would handle an increasingly fractured political landscape.
While some of us may have changed the channel before actually hearing the majority of the President’s speech, Zuma did touch on the high cost of data that lead to the ultimately ineffectual #DataMustFall movement in the latter half of 2016.
Read: Project Isizwe rolls out free Wi-Fi for guests, journalists at SONA 2017
Addressing the nation, Zuma sought to assure youth that government would continue to place the high cost of data “‘uppermost in (their) policies and plans.”

From the speech: “Government will also continue to pursue policies that seek to broaden the participation of black people and SMMEs, including those owned by women and the youth, in the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) sector.

We assure the youth that the lowering of the cost of data is uppermost in our policies and plans.”

Unfortunately, Zuma’s commentary provides little insight into how government will begin the long process of tackling the exorbitant price of data in South Africa, and will hence begin the process of not only regulating prices but further managing the deployment of a national broadband network.

The high cost of internet access

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has previously been raked over the coals by South African political parties – such as the ANC – for enabling the cost of communicating in the country to exceed that of other African states.  In 2013, South Africa was ranked 30th out of 46 places as “as having the most expensive pre-paid mobile tariffs among African countries”.
Those tariffs led to some of the most overt protest during the #DataMustFall movement, which was spearheaded by Tbo Touch of Touch Central. South African citizens and celebrities alike quickly joined in to voice their frustration around the high prices of data in the country, while the EFF was the first political party to pledge support for the movement.

The #DataMustFall flop

While the #DataMustFall campaign called for accessible data fees – though whether those calls center around an open access network or even what an ‘accessible’ fee for internet connectivity might represent remains still remains unclear – the movement ultimately died an ignoble death when networks proceeded to zero-rate both CliffCentral and Touch Central in a bid to satisfy growing demands.
While the movement was overwhelmingly ineffectual, it did succeed in raising awareness surrounding local government’s pioneering free Wi-Fi zones. Many South African cities have made strides in offering free internet connectivity – the City of Tshwane offers a daily data allowance to all citizens in public spaces with Project Isizwe, while the City of Cape Town and the City of Johannesburg have begun introducing new free Wi-Fi zones.

Government’s plan

While Zuma’s brief State of the Nation remarks offer little insight into how government will seek to redress or regulate the high cost of internet access in South Africa, some work has already taken place.
Siyabonga Cwele, the Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, has previously sought to reduce the cost of communication within South Africa through pricing and content reforms. In 2014, Cwele sought approval for a budget of R1.59 billion ZAR in a bid for government to “establish an environment in which the cost to communicate is affordable to all South Africans”.

The Broadband Market Value-Chain study was concluded in 2014 with the view of regulating broadband prices, while the National Roaming Study was undertaken to study the cost implications of mobile operators – with the view of studying discriminatory behaviour that blocked the entrance of smaller operators.
The Pricing Transparency Regulations would supposedly “to enable consumers to have a clear understanding of the true costs for the services they pay for”, while Premium Content Regulation was set to regulate how broadcasters access premium content services such as sport rights and films.
The end result of the study was the intention to launch an Open Access Network by October of 2014. The concept would detail a scenario where South Africa would operate with a new open-access wholesale-only wireless network. This would allow a greater efficiency in terms of network capacity, and would serve as a platform for new mobile operators to enter the playing field without having to field the cost of setting up their own network infrastructure.

The risks and benefits of an open network

While it seems a rosy proposition, the risks would be evident; Martyn Roetter cites that a wholesale network would effectively be a monopoly that would be difficult to control, the plan could fail to attract enough traffic from existing operators and hence fail as a business, and the fact that all operators could feasibly access the same network would reduce the ability of new networks to offer differentiated and hence attractive products.

The future of data in South Africa

While President Zuma’s 2017 State of the Nation Address corroborated little of the South African government’s vision for a national broadband network, government has, in fact, eyed a self-imposed 2020 deadline at which point universal internet across South Africa would be offered. Cwele has previously indicated that
Minister Siyabonga Cwele has previously indicated that Telkom would be ‘the most likely company to form part of the government’s strategy to roll out broadband’. Cwele cited that “In terms of the scale of technical capacity, I don’t think there’s any company that has that scale in terms of technical capacity like Telkom.”
Read: Vodacom vs Cell C vs MTN vs Telkom Mobile: Who offers the best data bundles?

Have your say!

What are your thoughts on President Zuma’s remarks on the ‘cost of data’ during his 2017 State of the Nation Address? What can government do to regulate the high price of data in South Africa?
Be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithSA