South Africa wants to give free broadband to its residents. Can you pull t?

In August 2021, the South African government made a sweeping promise: deliver free 10 gigabytes of high-speed broadband to every household in its population of more than 60 million. Broadband and data will now become a basic service that every home should receive, just like water and security, South African Communications Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni has promised.

The country’s government hopes that providing the service will increase connectivity and reduce the cost of internet access. “If this is successful, South Africa will be Africa’s first broadband welfare state. It will either be a massive digital leap or it will fail,” says Denis Juru, president of the South African International Cross-Border Traders Association (SICTA), which advocates uniform EU-like taxes on imports of telecommunications products in all countries. from southern Africa.

It’s a turning point for the country the World Bank has called the world’s most unequal: broadband has long symbolized South Africa’s alarming domestic wealth gap, as 7.5 million low-income South Africans pay 80 times higher than middle and upper income residents. to access the Internet. Even after South Africa’s biggest internet providers slashed prices by 50% in March 2020, as they found data prices to be some of the highest on the continent, the cheapest unlimited 4G broadband plan The country’s cheap ticket still costs ZAR 479 ($30), a figure equivalent to nearly a month’s wages for millions of people living at or below the poverty line. (In 2016, a public campaign titled #DataMustFall broke out across the country, with citizens demanding that broadband prices be slashed.)

While the South African government has previously made similar promises to expand internet access, the current iteration of its plan seems more feasible: South Africa recently won nearly $1 billion from the auction of 4G and 5G broadband radio spectrum, which gave him the money to implement the program. , and hopes that Google’s planned submarine cable from Portugal to South Africa will help boost speeds. But with the government still saddled with archaic central planning and corruption, some observers are skeptical that broadband will become a universal commodity in South Africa.

“Being unable [to access] basic broadband is tough: disconnecting from real-time crime alerts, online job offers, digital education. It means our children waking up at 5am and walking hundreds of meters to ‘sneak’ the fire station’s free internet signals and submit a desperate job CV online,” says Pela Xolile, leader of the Tembisa initiative. Better Streets, which advocates for free internet. in the poor townships of Tembisa, one of the largest low-income townships in South Africa. “Free broadband by 2023 will be the greatest gift to us, millions of poor South Africans, dwarfing the [ZAR350 ($23)] subsidy for the care of the children that we receive from the state”.

In anticipation of universal broadband, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), a state telecommunications regulatory agency, has already begun migrating all television and audio transmission in the country from analog to digital terrestrial. The process requires technical expertise and a large budget, and it happened in richer countries like Canada a decade ago. Some 572,000 low-income households have already transitioned to digital for free so far, and over the past decade the South African government has slowly started to provide some form of free broadband to some residents.

But those attempts to provide citizens with Internet access have been dismal.

The South African government’s Communication Information Systems, the approximately ZAR 500MN ($32 million) agency responsible for connecting free internet in municipal libraries, public hospitals, schools and fire stations, is very busy. The free community internet it offers today is usually delivered via asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL), an older technology that transmits data over copper wire phone lines and is often slow. Disconnections are frequent because most community libraries, fire stations, schools, clinics and corridors are located far from interchanges, but the demand for connectivity in poor townships where millions live is high.

“There is a shortage of technicians to monitor and repair the community’s free internet. The agency itself is a disaster,” says Xolile of the Tembisa Better Streets initiative. It’s not just aging infrastructure and slow speeds that keep residents from accessing the internet. Communities also have to deal with municipalities not paying bills or equipment theft.

But the South African government feels its current plan is stronger than previous iterations. Because it plans to bring free Internet to homes rather than public hospitals or schools, officials hope the strategy will reduce strain on the system and facilitate faster speeds. Most importantly, Google has also announced the expansion of its Equiano submarine Internet cable, a key element of the company’s billion-dollar program to roll out a digital highway in Africa. It will land in South Africa later this year and connect the country to Europe via Portugal, reportedly tripling internet speeds in South Africa.

For struggling players in South Africa’s gig economy, so-called “broadband wellness” could revolutionize their respective industries. Rideshare drivers, for example, hope that reducing what they spend on Internet access will help increase their income.

“Data connectivity costs take a chunk out of our drivers’ earnings,” says Darly Moyo, a trade unionist and leader of the informal Uber-Bolt Drivers in South Africa Alliance, which claims to represent hundreds of drivers and was involved in a fierce national strike. in March. “The ability to drive an Uber car with free broadband can increase drivers’ earnings by 2%. Free broadband is great,” he says. fast company.

Still, some business executives say free basic broadband in South Africa could be crazy expensive, because the urgent priority is to build out the fiber network extensively and make data accessible. Unless the government subsidizes telecommunications corporations, some business leaders believe that free broadband will burden the middle class with higher broadband packages and taxes.

“Where is the fiber connection in the rural areas where most South Africans live? Who will pay the technicians? Who will audit free data usage? Who will pay for the free 10 Gigs obtained from private telecommunications corporations? This is a utopia”, says Dennis Juru, president of SICTA. (The South African government already owns a large broadband company, Telkom, so it has the power to invest in better fiber connections and thus lower data prices.)

Free basic internet broadband sounds revolutionary on paper, with the potential to reach millions of low-income, unconnected South Africans. But knowing that the South African government has destroyed other basic national infrastructure, such as the railways and the power grid, their view of the well-being of the Internet seems tenuous. “A country doesn’t move into the 4th Industrial Revolution with gifts of data,” says Juru.

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