New Campaign Demands Free Basic Cellphone Airtime and Text Services in South Africa

18 Jul 2013

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A new communications campaign launched by the "Right to Know Campaign" (R2K) is putting on its list of demands, free basic cellphone airtime and short message services (SMS or text services).

Fazila Farouk of SACSIS spoke Dr. Dale McKinley, a representative of the R2K campaign, about this new campaign and the rationale underpinning it. He told her that South Africans are being exploited. South Africa has the sixth highest cellphone charge rates in the world. Cellphone companies are also making as much as 3,000% profit on SMS services, whereas in other countries, these services are provided for free.

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg.

According to figures released last year, there are almost six billion cellphone subscribers in the world. That’s almost a cellphone for every human being on this planet.

Cellular technology has certainly revolutionized the way communication takes place in the world. It’s put communication within the reach of a lot more people who would otherwise not have had access to communication.

But this communication revolution has not been without problems. Cellphone companies that provide the service have been trying to maximize their profits. South Africans, for example, pay amongst the highest cellphone charges in the world.

Our guest today argues that here in South Africa, it’s the poor that are actually subsidizing the rich, when it comes to cellular costs.

Today we’re talking to Dr. Dale McKinley. Dale is involved in the “Right to Know Campaign” and he’s going to tell us about a new campaign that they’re launching. The campaign is trying to bring down the costs of cellphone charges in South Africa.

Welcome to SACSIS Dale.

DALE McKINLEY: Thank you, Fazila.

FAZILA FAROUK: Now Dale, tell us about this campaign that you’re involved in. What specifically are the demands around bringing down the cellphone costs?

DALE McKINLEY: Well the first thing that the campaign starts with is the constitutional right that we have under Section 16 to impart and access information. That’s our starting point.

And on the basis of that we’re looking at this, as you say, this explosion of cellphone technology and connectivity. And South Africa has even got one of the highest ownership…cellphone ownerships rates. I think it’s 90%. So per capita we have one of the highest in the world and this has been celebrated, as a you know, a new form of communication of people being in touch.

But, basically what we have found out through our research, and obviously experiences in communities, is that a large portion of our population, particularly poor people, are unable to access that airtime simply because of the costs…the high costs.

Let’s give an example. We found out through research through the International Telecommunications Union that South Africa - according to their figures - has the sixth highest cellphone charge rates in the world. In other words, airtime -- and that on one SMS, the cellphone companies are making up to 3,000% profit. It costs them 2.6 cents for an SMS and they charge us up to 70 cents for an SMS.

FAZILA FAROUK: When we were talking earlier on you were telling me that one of the demands could be asking for text services to be provided for free -- and you were mentioning to me international examples, cases in some countries where this is indeed the reality for people. They don’t pay for text services. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

DALE McKINLEY: Sure. What we have found is that in those countries, which have extensive cellular communications infrastructure, the United States for example, large parts of Europe as well, and even parts of Asia…in that context, because texting actually doesn’t cost anything, in terms of it doesn’t take up any data space, generally speaking on the network it is offered generally for free. In the United States, you can text as much as you want. It makes no difference and the cellphone rates charges are quite low. And that’s the case in many other countries.

And what we’re saying is we’re being told we have world-class infrastructure, we have this world-class cellphone industry. Well let’s have world-class prices. You know, lets, let’s bring it down to that. We can’t have it both ways.

And so in that context, what we’re saying is, we believe that the cellphone companies are taking advantage of the South African public and particularly the poor who cannot afford contracts.

FAZILA FAROUK: Dale can you give us some examples of exactly how the companies are extracting costs from people?

DALE McKINLEY: The cellphone companies are profiteering in many different kinds of ways and one of those ways is through the difference between prepaid and contract users with regards to airtime. For example, when the prepaid users buy airtime, they buy R50, R100, whatever it is and that is supposed to last for however long it takes you. It could last for six months, a year, however long it takes you to use that airtime.

And what we found out - and have done our own research with regards to prepaid users - is people are being cut off after like three months. If they don’t use that R60, they’re being cut off. So they lose what they paid for. This is an illegal act on the part of the cellphone companies.

They’re denying that they’re doing this, but we know that they are because we have many, many different empirical studies that show that this is the case with people’s experiences, as prepaid users. So that’s one of the areas in regards to that.

The other, of course, as I have sort of eluded to earlier on was the fact that the simple unit charges for spending a minute talking are much higher -- much like prepaid electricity, where people who get prepaid electricity per unit end up paying more than the credit users, and its the same on the cellphone. So it penalizes those that are least able to afford cellphone communication and airtime, and you have to buy the prepaid vouchers on two fronts.

And with specific reference to Vodacom, which is the largest with MTN, but certainly the largest coverage in South Africa, what is beginning to happen is that they have loaded so many people onto their network and yet their infrastructure has not kept up. So what you find happening is people’s calls getting dropped, is people’s texting (being delayed) for two to three hours. And that is, if the whole selling point to cellphones is instant communication then that’s not being provided and nobody’s paying for that. You’re not getting free airtime, you’re not getting some, you know, refunds. So, in fact, they’re profiteering on the fact that often times that what they’re offering, is not what they’re giving.

FAZILA FAROUK: And what would you say is the level of understanding in the public about, you know, how much they’re being exploited? Do the public know?

DALE McKINLEY: Not much. That’s our…it’s going to be a long campaign.

People are aware that something is not quite right, I think. When we have done our educational campaigns and people say “3,000% profit on an SMS. My goodness, I knew that I was paying to much.” But it’s an innate sense that ‘yes’ -- but in terms of basic knowledge of this, no.

I think that there has been an unfortunate trend to celebrate this cellphone technology and this connectivity without looking at the pricing issue and without looking at the deeper ideological issues involved about whether or not, in our country, we should be having some degree of free communication and free services just like other basic services.

FAZILA FAROUK: So how do you intend engaging with private companies to try and get them to listen to your demands?

DALE McKINLEY: Well the first thing that we have done is written to them and we’ve showed them this research, we’ve produced some information. We wanted them…we asked them to respond to that. So we engage, essentially, first.

Their response has been fairly predictable. Their response is “No you’re wrong. We actually are not charging this because we have all these hidden costs that we have to cover -- the infrastructure, the rollout of the network and all of these other kinds of things. Yes, We do realize that we could bring costs down somewhat and we’re beginning to do that but it’s going to take some time and we’re going to work with government and so forth and so on.”

So their…essentially their response has been there’s nothing wrong. Yes, we understand that there is…that we can improve but you know, don’t get upset and just chill out.

So that engagement obviously hasn’t worked, so we’ve basically taken it to the next level.

Over the last two months we’ve marched. We’ve mobilized communities in Cape Town and Jo’burg and we’ve marched to Vodacom, MTN and Cell C, which are the three major cellphone companies, to begin to put public pressure.

We’ve started a media campaign on this to put it into the public debate so that people would begin to talk about this and it begins to be raised as a national issue.

FAZILA FAROUK: So talk to me a little bit more about the rationale underpinning the campaign and particularly linking that to the right to communication in our constitution.

DALE McKINLEY: Absolutely. As I’ve said, in Section 16 - the right to impart and access information. Now, most people who live in rural areas and informal settlements don’t have access to desktop computers or the world wide web in terms of their…they don’t have laptops. So people say well we’ve got the cellphone. You can get on Twitter, you can get onto Whatsapp, you can do all these things, but you have to have data time in order to do that.

So accessing and imparting information is, is a right that now has moved into the technological world as far as, it’s not simply going to a library or getting information out of your government about a trade deal or something like this.

And in that context we believe that, that is a fundamental constitutional human right.

If people are not able to access information and to communicate information, well they’re left out of this incredible revolution. And that’s much like economics. What we have economically is there’s a whole range of people left out of the economy and the elites enjoy the privileges of that.

So what we’re saying is, we believe we have a right to communicate, a right to be able to access the world wide web and to be able to access data time.

And in that context we’re asking for the cellphone companies to basically to provide a free amount of the airtime and free SMSes. We don’t believe it will really fundamentally affect their bottom line.

FAZILA FAROUK: Thank you very much for joining us Dale.

DALE McKINLEY: Thank you, Fazila.

FAZILA FAROUK: And thank you to our listeners and viewers for joining us at SACSIS. And remember if you are looking for more social justice analysis you can get that at our website on

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