Why an obligation to provide South Africans with free public benefit content has stalled.

An obligation placed on South Africa’s biggest mobile network operators (MNOs) to start providing free access to content from public benefit organisations (PBO) has stalled because discussions with the communications regulator are yet to be finalised.

This obligation was created following last year’s successful spectrum auction, where Telkom, Vodacom, MTN, Rain, Cell C and Liquid Intelligent Technologies licensed spectrum bands that were being used to improve their networks

The MNOs spent billions to acquire bands of spectrum that they can use to improve their networks by enabling wider and more stable 4G and 5G coverage.

Some of these companies told News24 in August this year that they had either started using the spectrum they acquired or were about to start using it.

But, there was a social obligation attached to the acquisition that is yet to come into effect.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) stipulated that successful bidders would have to provide South Africans with free access to online content from PBOs, such as government websites, jobseeker portals and education platforms.

The companies are yet to comply with this obligation and discussions with Icasa are ongoing.

What this means is that the companies are benefitting from the use of the spectrum, without fulfilling the social obligation on which the licensing of the spectrum was contingent.

This is not the first attempt at zero-rating certain content in the country.

The Internet Service Providers Association announced in 2020 that almost 1 000 local websites had been made zero-rated, or were in the process of being zero-rated. This was introduced through the state of disaster which was in place at the time.

Spokespeople from Vodacom, Telkom, and MTN responded to News24’s questions to explain that discussions between the spectrum licensees and Icasa had not been finalised.

“Icasa is still engaging licensees on the final contents of all social obligations, once this is communicated and implemented, the list of zero rates sites should be made public by Icasa,” said Jacqui O’Sullivan, the chief of sustainability and corporate affairs at MTN South Africa.

A Telkom statement said discussions with Icasa were ongoing. Questions regarding the timelines on which change would be implemented were ignored.

Vodacom spokesman Byron Kennedy said licensees would still have three years to implement and on-board approved PBOs for zero-rating once an effective starting date had been set by Icasa.

Kennedy said there would be conditions attached to the zero-rating obligation on licensees.

“Licensees will not be required to zero-rate any service for commercial gain, embedded content or embedded links, rich media content, such as videos and streaming, with more than 480-pixel quality, any content which poses a security threat or amounts to exploitative tunnelling, or where there is reasonable ground to believe that illegitimate and/or abusive use of zero-rated websites may be taking place,” said Kennedy.

He said licensees would be able to put a cap on usage to ensure that the offer was not abused.

Kennedy said Vodacom currently zero-rated more than 600 PBOs on a voluntary basis.

Cell C likewise told News24 that it had zero-rated 935 PBO sites in the past.

Cell C acknowledged the social obligation to zero-rate PBO content following the spectrum auction.

Icasa did not respond to questions from News24.

Digital divide

The DG Murray Trust (DGMT), a South African philanthropic foundation, has been working to ease the process of implementing the zero-rating system for Icasa and MNOs.

David Harrison, the CEO of the DG Murray Trust, said it was not surprising that MNOs were waiting for Icasa to get going with the zero-rating.

He said: We know that zero-rating is going to be on their back burner if precedent is anything to go by.

“They have been waiting for the Icasa agreement to be signed. From a network operator’s point of view, that’s what’s given the space to do nothing.”

Onesisa Mtwa, the innovation director at DGMT, said the foundation had built a social innovation register, where PBOs had been able to register to be zero-rated.

Despite repeated attempts to communicate with MNOs, regarding the register, she said they had not engaged.

“Despite all of that, we still haven’t heard a word from them [mobile network operators]. We have heard nothing… not a pipsqueak.”

She said zero-rating public benefit content would be a major breakthrough in empowering people to access digital resources.

“We are still a ways away from having a very equitable society in terms of access to digital resources.”

“There is still a major digital divide, although there has been some progress,” said Mtwa.

Harrison said zero-rating PBO content was the “lowest hanging fruit”, which could be “an incredible boost to socio-economic development”.

David Harrison is CEO of the DG Murray Trust

This article was first published by News24 on 31 October 2023. See it here.

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