Zero-rate mobile services for health, education and development. NOW!

Gogo Thobeka sits with her grandson in Keiskammahoek, as he looks for stories to read after school. In these uncertain times with school closures, it is important that education can continue at home, and that educational resources be free to access. The 2011 Census found that 89% of homes have at least one cell phone in working order, compared to 21% with access to computers and 15% with access to a landline. And yet, the majority of people in South Africa do not have any access to the Internet. The reason is not a lack of infrastructure – there are cell phone towers across the country – but rather the price of connection.

If ever there were a time to capitalise on the fact that there is a cellphone in every home, it’s now. Schools, preschools, reading circles, health clubs, antenatal classes, job skills and a wide variety of community support programmes have been cancelled. The pipeline of learning and teaching to millions of children has been abruptly cut off and is unlikely to start flowing again for several months.

Wealthier independent and ‘quintile-five’ public schools are gearing up for online learning and network operators like Vodacom and MTN have agreed to zero-rate hundreds of websites to allow users to access them at no cost. But this is not enough and we fear that the most effective mobile services reaching the poorest children will be muscled out by government, universities and other high-end websites. All these services are crucial, but what is required is a strategic and consistent approach across all network operators to make sure that most of our children and young people are not left out.

If each individual network picks and chooses which sites to zero-rate, a person’s access to crucial information, content, and communication will be determined by the colour of their sim card – not what is of most value to them and their child. All networks must commit to ensuring universal access to the services, apps and sites that public benefit organisations (PBO’s) provide for the development of South Africa’s children, parents, and young people. This recommendation is contained in the data services enquiry report of Competition Commission, and according to that report, network operators have already indicated their willingness to implement that proposal. The time to do so is now.

The poorest 20 – 30% of families, mostly living in informal settlements and rural areas, do not have smartphones. They rely on data-based messaging services for information and interaction, and the use of ‘please call me’ in emergencies. They do not have access to sophisticated interactive websites and mobile applications that help guide and facilitate learning.

Even if poorer children have taken their textbooks and worksheets home, few of them will be able to study independently without the guidance of teachers or knowing whether their answers are correct or not. The reality is that most of these children are struggling as it is, achieving scores of 20 – 40% in mathematics and English. They will need educational solutions customised for their needs; drip-fed content through data-light mobile platforms like WhatsApp or Moya Messenger to encourage reading and debate and to interact with their parents as well.

Fortunately, South Africa has a wealth of local non-profit organisations whose mission is to improve health and education. For example, WordWorks has designed a set of easy-to-use resource materials for volunteers, aimed at improving early language development and literacy. Nal’ibali is a national reading campaign with hundreds of stories for parents to read to their children in their home language. FunDza is a mobile platform for reading specifically aimed at teenagers in poorer communities.

Some of these programmes are large, reaching across South Africa, while many are local, deeply embedded in their local communities. It is this network that we need to draw on now to reach the millions of children and young people who have been thrown into an educational desert.

It would be a mirage to imagine that all network operators need to do is to zero-rate government services and a range of online educational platforms. The reality is that, with the exception of MomConnect run by the Department of Health, there are no digital platforms currently run by government that will be able to engage with families in a consistent and regular way. Their immediate focus must be to maximise the use of radio and television.

Unless all the network operators coordinate their responses, their zero-rating of selected sites will have little benefit. For example, right now the Public School Partnerships initiative is trying to develop a cross-school learning platform to reach parents and children in their homes. These families subscribe to different cellphone networks, which means that only some of the learners will have access to each of the websites zero-rated separately by Vodacom or MTN or Cell C, Telkom or Rain.

A central mechanism is being developed by a coalition of NGOs to vet, verify, and list PBO content and services. The DG Murray Trust (DGMT) has already allocated R10 million to set up the systems to screen and monitor digital content provided by PBOs.

Over the next few months, access to education will rest squarely in the hands of the leadership of mobile network operators. The coronavirus will hit poorer communities hard. On the other hand, network operators stand to benefit handsomely as most meetings and engagements shift to digital platforms like Skype and Zoom. History will judge them harshly if they do not ensure that the epidemic’s impact does not further erode the prospects for our nation’s most vulnerable children. We do not have a day to lose.

This op-ed was first published on 23 March 2020 by the Mail & Guardian. View it here.

Remember to sign the petition on Change.org so that we can put pressure on the mobile networks to zero-rate access to information and educational resources. Find the petition here.