Remember the Right to Communicate?

By Jane Duncan · 5 Nov 2009

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Picture: Fusion68k
Picture: Fusion68k

"All shall call." This phrase was popularised by Pallo Jordan in the mid 1990's, and became a catchphrase of telecommunications transformation in South Africa. It echoed the idea espoused by Jordan at the Plenipotentiary meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that access to telecommunications was a right, not a privilege.

A snap survey of telecommunications usage by residents of Grahamstown points to just how foreign these concepts are today.

It also points to the huge social cost of being unable to communicate. The survey was undertaken through Rhodes University for a Parliamentary submission to the Portfolio Committee of Communication's hearing into the cost of communications.

Parliament held the hearing recently to canvass opinion about their intention to bring down interconnection charges. The Committee maintains that the cost is too high, resulting in massive profit taking by Vodacom and MTN.

While this move is welcome, the affordability problem is much bigger than interconnection; it is a symptom of a significant failure of government policy to achieve universality of communications. Thabo Mbeki's '1996 class project' emphasised market driven solutions to connectivity problems, which has resulted in a form of duopoly power that has contributed significantly to South Africa's dubious status as the most unequal country in the world.

Rather than being a tool to enable the right to communicate, the survey revealed that for the residents of Joza and Fingo townships, cell phones are used largely as receiving devices; the excessively high cost of airtime has made usage of cell phones for conversation all but impossible.

As most respondents are MTN subscribers, these immediate connectivity problems may remain unaddressed even if the interconnection rate is brought down, as many calls are 'on-net' rather than 'off-net'.

In a country where, increasingly, mobile communications are at the heart of social and economic transactions, and therefore where the presumption is of connectedness, the inability to connect can be held against a person, professionally and personally.

If airtime is unaffordable, cell phone penetration merely creates a mirage of connectivity; a false sense of being part of what Manuel Castells has termed the 'mobile network society'.

Several students observed that they had missed important study opportunities. Other respondents claimed to have lost family members to illness, as they were unable to phone for assistance.

High communications costs have a gender dimension as well. Grandmothers tasked with caring for small children complained about being unable to communicate when crises emerge.

Others spoke of having to use food money to buy airtime, which is hardly surprising as the survey revealed that respondents spent, on average, 26 percent of their income on airtime. This figure contrasts sharply with the ITU's benchmark that not more than three percent of income should be spent on information and communication technologies.

The unemployed are especially hard hit. Job opportunities are few and far between in Grahamstown, and if not seized at the appropriate moment, they may not come along again too easily. A member of the Unemployed People's Movement likened the inability to communicate to "a disease that will disable you to reach a certain point in your life because once you miss some opportunities in life they will never come back at least for as long as you live."

Another source of great resentment is that township-based customers are 'taxed' simply for living in the township, while those in the suburbs enjoy discounts. Customers buying R5.00 worth of airtime at the local Pick 'n Pay are charged R4.50, while customers buying airtime from the 'spaza' shops in Joza or Fingo pay between R5.50 and R6.00. These charges load an already-intolerable cost burden on the poor. 

There is also evidence of upward redistribution of resources from voice to data services. Only three residents surveyed used data services. Yet some residents complained that the cheapest and most basic handsets do not last beyond three months. One respondent observed that as top-end handsets have become more sophisticated, the quality of basic handsets at the bottom end of the market has declined. Over 60 percent of respondents were unhappy with the quality of service generally.

Significantly, the survey revealed that many people still want landlines in their homes, as they allow housebound residents - especially the elderly - to remain connected. Yet Telkom has been allowed to drop the ball quietly on fixed line roll out, resulting in shrinkage of the network.

Inventive communities of practice have evolved in response to the affordability problem, such as people sending customised please call me’s to communicate messages free of charge. But the cell phone companies are now limiting the number of times a please call me can be personalised. 

The Portfolio Committee has chastised the communications regulator, Icasa, for dragging its feet on bringing down the cost of communications, and correctly so.

But government must take part of the blame for this problem. During the Mbeki years, the government systematically undermined the regulator through underfunding and attacks on its independence, which has led to a timid, fearful regulator that has become prey to regulatory capture.

This problem has now come back to bite the Zuma administration.

Civil society has also dropped the ball on affordable communications questions. While laudable attempts have been made to re-enliven the traditions of activism around the SABC, much of civil society has lost policy capacity on the telecommunications front.

As a result, producer interests dominate over consumer interests. The few civil society organisations with capacity have relinquished the space. There is a clear need for a grassroots consumer movement.

How many people are aware of the fact that there is a statutory agency in existence in the form of the Universal Service and Access Agency, which has just led a public process to redefine universal service and access? A similar process was undertaken ten years ago, which resulted in draft regulations that were never promulgated.

For all this time, South Africa has not had enforceable definitions in place, so it is hardly surprising that the telecommunications companies get away with murder.

In a period of unparalleled expansion, the telecommunications sector has lost its way. It is characterised by communications apartheid. Some policy space exists to address these problems, but the extent to which the Zuma administration grasps the nettle and effects meaningful changes in the sector, will be a crucial test of the efficacy of its pro-poor credentials.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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Rory Short
7 Nov

Affordable Telecomms

In my view Government is responsible for the fact that there is insufficient competition in the Telecomms market to drive prices down.

If the government is really pro poor let alone pro South Africa it should make increasing competition in the telecomms market its top priority.

Telecommunications are the essential oil of commerce and it is criminal if micro enterprises and their customers and suppliers cannot afford to make use of telecomms because the fat cats of the telecomms companies can ignore the regulator and keep prices inordinately high. The simplest way to solve this problem is to let more players enter the market.

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