In the midst of the Covid Crisis, we cannot leave half our children behind

Why zero-rating of mobile services of PBOs is so crucial

The poorest children have the least access to digital learning – and yet we are currently zero-rating mobile content that only wealthy children can use!

Schooling is going to stop for three months and we’ve got to:

  • Stop pretending that most children will have access to online learning.
  • Stop pretending that the e-learning platforms that network operators are providing or zero-rating will get anywhere near the poorest half of learners.
  • Stop using the epidemic to try and make commercial gains.

1. In the next three months, how will children in Diepsloot and Idutywa learn?

Most children in informal settlements and rural areas have access to a feature phone.  If they are lucky enough to have a ‘smart’ feature phone, they can access the internet through a browser but can’t access any apps that are not preloaded onto the phone. If they have a ‘dumbphone’ they have no internet access.  In 2018, only 10% of people said they had internet at home.  Maybe it’s 20% now, but the children we’re trying to reach are not in that 20%.

You may say that radio is the answer. Even if there were programmes for every grade in every subject in every language – there aren’t and there won’t be for months – you can’t expect an eight-year-old to learn by listening to the radio without any interaction with a teacher or other person to facilitate learning.

What is realistically possible is to tightly package small bites of information and transmit them to children, with questions that need to be answered; and then use SMS or a chat function to talk with them.  It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances.

2. Who can get to these children on cellphones?

There are at least 50 public benefit organisations (PBOs) whose life’s work is to reach the poorest children with learning resources, books, stories, language and maths. Working closely with the Department of Basic Education, they have designed their digital content to reach children and young people living in the poorest communities. They include organisations like Nal’ibali, FunDza, Funda Wande, Children’s Radio Foundation and Olico. For very young children, we need to engage with their parents, which is where initiatives like SmartStart, Embrace and Grow Great are critical.  But these PBOs can’t reach all the children if access depends on the colour of their sim card.

Many PBOs are also involved in health, identification of opportunities for young people, and food relief.  In the context of the epidemic, they need to be able to engage with people in need.

Network operators must commit to funding a common list of PBOs – urgently, and for the public good.

3. How can it be done?

DGMT is a South African foundation which has partnered with a technology company (biNU) to create a single portal (, through which a common group of public benefit organisations can be zero-rated.  All that network operators have to do is register that one IP domain and agree on the data cap they are willing to commit to. biNU, which already works with all 4 network operators, can exclude certain forms of content (like videos) and track usage and provide reports to the network operator.  DGMT is also able to review and monitor PBO content to ensure that there is no abuse.

4. How can it be funded?

Our immediate request is for network operators to collectively commit to funding 1 million users of the mobile services of PBOs, providing 500MB per person to access any service through the portal. The cost to networks of data is about 5c per MB. With a million users, the total monthly cost to the operators (combined) will be approximately R25 million, pro-rated by their market share. That means that Vodacom would incur costs of about R10.6 million, MTN R7.25 million, Cell C R4.25 million and Telkom R2.25 million per month.

DGMT has also requested USAASA to request Treasury to allow R150 million of retained surplus funds to be directed towards this end.  And that is exactly what the statutory contributions of network operators should be used for!  While we respond to this crisis, we hope to be able to demonstrate how universal service obligations can really work to benefit the poorest communities.

5. Where are we now?

Network operators

  • Telkom has engaged with DGMT and seems willing to commit. We are waiting for final confirmation.
  • Cell C has elected not to engage.
  • The response from both MTN and Vodacom has been very disappointing, although both have indicated their willingness to consider the proposal. It just doesn’t seem to happen – when every day counts.  We keep getting directed towards their own proprietary offerings or hearing that they are contributing to the government effort.  None of these directions will benefit the poorest half of our children.


We are waiting for USAASA to review the application and submit it to National Treasury.

6. What we need right now

All mobile operators to commit to zero-rating a common set of PBOs that would allow at least 1 million children and young people to access digital content, capped (in aggregate or individually) at 500MB per person per day.

All they need to do is agree on the amount of data they will contribute and zero-rate ‘’.

Doors of learning will then open for a million children who are currently excluded for the simple reason that they are too poor to benefit from the services that are now being zero-rated for wealthier children.