How realistic is free data for all households in South Africa?

Date:18 March 2022 Tags:,

Recently, the news broke that South Africans may be getting free data as part of a government roll-out plan under the umbrella programme SA Connect.

The data is not just for some of us either, but all of us – from rural families who are still trying to get access to clean water to families in more affluent societies.

If it sounds fairly Utopian to you, you’re not wrong for feeling slightly sceptical.

Communications and Digital Technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni made the announcement in a parliamentary Q&A.

The plan is set to look something like this:

In the space of the next three years, the SA Connect project will make its debut. Starting on 1 April this year, 10GB per month is on the cards for all South Africans. The rollout will churn until April 2023/2024 as per BusinessTech.

Additionally, high-speed broadband is also promised to be accessible in every community. Private company partnerships are also set to be in the works to make this possible.

“Funding has been requested from the National Treasury to establish the Broadband Fund with the objective to subsidise household connectivity and public Wi-Fi hotspots in low-income households and rural communities nationally,” the department stated.

The end goal proposes that 50GB of data per month will be accessible by all households as part of the government’s national infrastructure plan 2050 published by public works minister, Patricia de Lille.

“Government e-enablement will be leveraged to promote a digital society and universal connectivity,” the plan foreshadows.

Why has the internet problem pencilled in on the government’s agenda?

Nthsveheni has correctly noted that internet access is a utility all unto its own and that a lack of access is a negative contributor to the digital divide.

According to DataReportal, there are 41.19 million internet users in South Africa, but still, 19.21 million users did not use the internet, marking 31.8% of the population. These figures were taken from January 2022.

Why does this matter?

We’re living in the digital age, at a time when most fields have transitioned to having a foot in the door of the digital landscape. Access to the internet not only empowers people to more information and opportunities but also furthers their growth in a myriad of realms – from students at school to remote workers.

Of course, a lack of internet hinders these things.

How realistic is the government’s plan?

Service delivery has been a huge thorn in the side of the South African public for years. If you needed any indication of just how much of a thorn the issue is, think back to just a few months ago when service delivery protests prior to last years’ elections.

Some issues have included clean water, decent sanitation and of course, electricity – one of the most basic utilities that Eskom is still battling to provide the entire country with.

When we look at something like a data roll-out, we can’t ignore the track record of service delivery history in our country. Further, as BusinessTech indicated, “no specific feasibility study relating to the 10GB data has been undertaken as yet.”

Especially on the point of electricity, data without a device to use it on becomes somewhat irrelevant in most cases.

The government also hasn’t outlined how exactly households will receive the data.

An alternative plan

Some people have opted for another avenue to tackle the data problem, stating that if access to services didn’t consume data, we’d be in a better position. This is called using ‘reverse-billing’, which Datafree and Moya co-founder Gour Lentell believes can be a better solution.

Picture: Pexels

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