Fight looming over zero rating in South Africa

The DG Murray Trust believes significant educational progress can be made in under-resourced schools in South Africa if only telecommunications operators would play ball.

The trust wants educational and other websites “zero-rated” so that access to online resources is available to everyone at no cost.

Having digital content zero-rated is a major advantage because it democratises access to information and online resources, the trust said.

But trying to get a response from communications regulator Icasa is “like trying to move maple syrup”, according to DG Murray Trust communications specialist Corne Kritzinger.

The trust funds public benefit organisations (PBOs), including charities, and believes that systemic inequality is one of the reasons South African society is struggling to overcome poverty.

South Africa is grappling with the digital divide, where unequal access to mobile internet and smartphones has significant consequences for education and health care. “It’s almost as if there is discrimination based on the colour of your SIM card,” said Kritzinger.

The 2021 National Education Infrastructure Management System report, produced by the Department of Basic Education, revealed that only 22% of households have a computer in the home and only 10% of homes have access to Wi-Fi. Most South Africans rely on mobile data or public Wi-Fi facilities to access the internet.

Zero rating

The DG Murray Trust sees zero-rating of the online content of PBOs as a solution to digital inequality.

Kritzinger said the trust’s Social Innovation Register is a central database of all the websites that are zero-rated and where companies can list their sites and optimise usage.

The database offers a platform for public benefit organisations to apply for zero rating so that access to online resources is available to all. The system is ready for mobile network operators to plug into, allowing them to zero-rate websites and services quickly.

The trust is keen to get the ball rolling and to hand over the finished product to Icasa, but Kritzinger said it is impossible to get a response from the regulator. An Icasa spokeswoman could not immediately respond to the criticism.

During COVID-19, the government – through the national state of disaster – instructed mobile network operators to zero rate the content of PBOs. Kritzinger said some complied, most “under duress”, and some only after being threatened with legal action.

According to a 2020 Daily Maverick article, DG Murray Trust CEO David Harrison said there are at least 50 PBOs whose life work is to reach the poorest children, providing them with language and maths learning resources.

“Many have designed their digital content to reach children and young people living in the poorest communities, delivered in bite-sized chunks and supported by SMS or basic chat functions. These PBOs include Nal’ibali, FunDza, Funda Wande and SmartStart,” Harrison reportedly said.

But without zero rating certain content, it’s difficult for disadvantaged South Africans to gain access to this knowledge, or for young people to access skills development resources, because they simply do not have the money to spend on airtime or data.

In April 2022, Icasa introduced licensing conditions for 5G spectrum that made it mandatory for mobile network operators to zero rate digital content from PBOs. However, to date “there is no commitment from the mobile network operators or a clear commitment from Icasa on how to implement, manage and enforce this. Contact with the operators and Icasa is ignored. The lessons learnt during the Covid-19 pandemic have reinforced the importance of digital access for education. Zero rating became a lifeline for students who needed access to learning materials during lockdown.

“During the pandemic, the mobile network operators could pull zero-rating rabbits out of their hats quite quickly. But now, after the disaster regulations were lifted, they seem to have discovered ‘technical issues’ that prevent them from repeating the act. It’s almost like they’re more interested in their bottom line than in making South Africans’ lives better,” said Kritzinger.

‘Also, there is sometimes double-speak going on. Vodacom says it offers zero rating, for instance, but to access its offer you must have a positive balance in your account – so that sort of defeats the object,” he said.

Asked whether the role of commercial mobile network operators such as Telkom, Vodacom, MTN and Cell C was to make a profit for their shareholders, rather than providing freebies to PBOs, Kritzinger said contributing to zero rating for children living in poverty would have a positive knock-on effect, apart from being a “social duty” in a country like South Africa.

MTN South Africa chief sustainability and corporate affairs head Jacqui O’Sullivan told TechCentral: “Although the engagement between Icasa and the mobile operators regarding zero rating of public benefit organisations and other social obligations is ongoing, MTN South Africa continues to zero rate more than 1 300 PBOs. MTN also offers free access to its e-learning platform, the MTN Online School,” O’Sullivan said.

Social obligations

“However, the further zero rating of additional PBOs cannot be treated in isolation from our other social obligations, as these form part of the same licence conditions that are currently under review. To this end, we are in constant engagement with Icasa to finalise the details of the zero-rating process and await its directive on the social obligations related to the spectrum purchased before we explore further zero-rating initiatives.”

A Vodacom spokesman couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

What is stopping the trust from going to court to force Icasa to cooperate? DG Murray Trust innovation director Onesisa Mtwa said it wants to avoid this. However, if no action has been taken by the end of November, she said it will have no option. “We have been patient and have given lots of leeway, but there is a signed and binding agreement with Icasa and nothing is happening.”

Icasa had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Onesisa Mtwa is an Innovation Director and Corné Kritzinger is the Communications Specialist at the DG Murray Trust.

This article was first published by Tech Central on 30 October 2023. See it here.

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