JOHANNESBURG — The #DataMustFall movement seems to resurface from time to time after reaching its zenith last year when Parliamentarians held a briefing on South Africa’s alleged high data prices. Very little came from that briefing (as typically happens when politicians get involved in industry matters). Ironically, it was also rich of MPs to hold such a briefing as government has presided over what can only be described a disaster when it comes to South Africa’s spectrum policies. In 2015, South Africa missed a key global digital migration deadline that was meant to open up analogue television signals for mobile networks. In turn, this older television spectrum is supposed to be used to deliver faster mobile broadband in greater quantities. But several disputes in court, as well as government ineptitude, have stalled this process, forcing mobile networks to re-farm spectrum and sell data that, in effect, is in increasingly limited supply. The networks, meanwhile, have been screaming for more spectrum and faster progress on digital migration as the more data they sell (even at lower prices) will generate greater revenues for them. It’s interesting then that the #DataMustFall movement hasn’t really digested this point or even asked harder questions of government. Subsequently, there’s a lopsided and ill-informed debate in the movement, which has been further skewed by misleading memes on social media. Yes, everybody wants data prices to fall – but the likes of government must start properly playing its role in this endeavour. – Gareth van Zyl
From the Free Market Foundation (FMF)*
#DataMustFall campaigners are guilty of cherry-picking to make a point that is set to undermine one of post-apartheid’s few success stories. (Worldwide data prices have fallen considerably and look set to continue doing so. It is a fantastic good news story – especially for the poor!)
Yes, in India, a small regional provider, for a limited period of time, offered a loss-leader special deal at R11 per gig. Comparing this isolated cheapest option to South Africa’s most expensive mainstream gig is disingenuous at best. The cheapest recent South African price was R8 per gig.
There are too many variables to compare prices across countries accurately or honestly. Prices vary depending on whether providers are regional or national, whether packages are once-off or contract, whether data is in or out of bundle.
But that’s not all. Prices are influenced by country size, population density, coverage, technology, speed, geography, regulations, subsidies, licensing fees, spectrum availability, quality and level of development. In South Africa, loadshedding and crime add to the prices charged consumers, as does restrictive spectrum allocation. In addition, the government requires mobile network operators to provide free or heavily-discounted data to schools, hospitals, clinics, universities and FETs. There is no such thing as a free lunch – someone has to pay for “free” data. That someone is you, the paying consumer.
Be warned: Calls for “free” data will raise your data prices. Are you ready to pretend data is a human right? What’s next? Something you supply?
Questions the media might ask at the ANC policy conference:
- Did government investigate whether it is really true that South Africa’s data prices are substantially higher than in India and Nigeria?
- Taking into account South Africa’s sparse population distribution, is it fair to compare South African data prices to densely populated India and Nigeria where towers cover many more people?
- Does the response to DataMustFall not amount to a knee-jerk reaction leading to premature populist conclusions?
- Aren’t data prices in South Africa forced up by policy uncertainty, inefficient spectrum allocation and overregulation?
- Industry experts have said that a pure comparison between South African data prices and those of other countries is dishonest, as various factors like the rand/dollar exchange rate, telecoms equipment, regulatory environment, population density, coverage and the distance between South Africa and the Northern Hemisphere, where most of the internet is located, need to be taken into account. What is your response to this?
- The socio-economic impact assessment released by the department included mostly praise and good reactions from the regulators and the industry, but omitted the serious concerns the industry had about the WOAN, spectrum allocation policy, and cost-based pricing. What is your response to this?
- South Africa’s constitution does not include a right to internet access, and lawyers have explained that our right to information does not mean anyone must be provided with a free or low-cost service. Is government willing to accept that it has no constitutional mandate to expand access to data?
- The FMF is an independent, non-profit, public benefit organisation, created in 1975 by pro-free market business and civil society national bodies to work for a non-racial, free and prosperous South Africa.