Vodacom recently became the first mobile network operator to reach what has been described as a “historic settlement” with the Competition Commission, an independent statutory body established to regulate competition between firms in the market, following an inquiry into the data services market. MTN has since also reduced its own prices, with both operators including a basic package of access for low-income consumers.
While the actions of the Competition Commission are to be commended as they avoided a drawn-out, costly legal battle with the mobile network operators and prioritised the immediate relief for consumers, there is no doubt that mobile network operators got off lightly - given the decades of exploitation consumers have faced from them.
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Vodacom, Shameel Joosub, has over the years regularly claimed that South Africa’s mobile operators are “world-class networks”. The outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by a coronavirus that is new to human-beings and has led to the country being declared a state of disaster, is an opportunity for Vodacom and other mobile network operators to back up that claim.
To prove their commitment and make-up for years of exploitation, they should provide low-income consumers with at least 3GB of data per month; 5 free SMSes per day and zero-rate all local news sites for at least the next three months, with a commitment to continue for another three should the pandemic not yet be contained.
There are several reasons why this is crucial.
First, connectivity is key for ensuring that people can access factual information about the outbreak. We know that this is dangerous and we saw that during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), misinformation spread as quickly as the disease, creating more deaths. A study published in The Lancet, a highly respected British medical journal, found that people had been bombarded by misinformation to the point that some people did not believe that the Ebola outbreak was real and the decreased likelihood of adopting preventive behaviours.
To keep people informed and proactively counteract current misinformation in South Africa, there has been great effort to ensure people can access factual, reliable information about the virus by both the government and others. One example of this is the data free resource portal with updates on the pandemic set up by the government, which not only provides information, but also does myth-busting.
While these efforts are commendable, as it helps members of the public keep informed about how to protect themselves, their loved ones and communities, this is not enough. In a time of physical distancing, ensuring that people are able to keep abreast of what is happening in the world around them is important. To ensure that members of the public can do this, mobile network operators should immediately zero-rate all local news sites until the spread of the pandemic is contained.
Second, connectivity can help people struggling with violence, isolation and mental health issues. Recently, physical distancing, which is limiting the physical contact we have with others, has been highlighted as a key way to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. This can be dangerous for some people. While there are admittedly evidence gaps, from both the COVID-19 pandemic and other similar outbreaks, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), risk of domestic violence increases in times of crisis. According to a recent research report from UK Aid, “domestic violence organisations have observed increased household tension and domestic violence due to forced coexistence, economic stress, and fears about the virus”.
As Naeemah Abrahams from the Medical Research Council (MRC) notes, “when we tell people to go into isolation, we must ask them if they feel they are able to do this safely”. We know in South Africa, for many women and children, this is not the case. Abrahams goes on to add that data access would be critical for ensuring that women are able to get the assistance and support they need, whether shelters or remote professional help, and to contact people who make up their support system should their assistance be required.
And that’s not the only reason why the mobile networks need to step up. The Alan J Flisher Centre for Public Mental Health has expressed concern that the response to the pandemic, makes little or no provision for the mental health implications. According to the centre, a key aspect for mental well-being, resilience and hope is being in contact with loved ones, feeling connected to broader society and psychosocial support. This makes connectivity essential in a time of limited physical interaction.
To be sure, these suggestions will come at an expense to the mobile network operators. But across the world, there is a recognition that this moment of potential crisis requires ‘all hands on deck’, if we are to pull through. Struggling media organisations are making coronavirus related content free to read to ensure that the public can stay informed. In other places internet service providers are offering free or discounted internet services to keep people connected. Locally DSTV “is making its 24-hour news channels available online to all South Africans – even if you’re not a subscriber”.
Even the communications authority has voiced its support and is willing to make regulatory concessions for the duration of the declared state of disaster, in an effort to ensure that mobile network operators make communication services available to all South Africans and have the capacity to deal with the expected surge in usage of data.
As we have seen in different parts of the world, overcoming this pandemic will require that every sector of society step out of the ‘business as usual’ logic. This is an invitation to the mobile network operators to do just that, not only for our sakes, but their own because they too are institutions existing and dependent on this very same society.
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