The Digital Divide

This is the first entry in a series of articles discussing the digital divide in South Africa. This article serves as an introduction to the subject. The digital divide is the gap between people who have access to information and communication technology (ICT) and those who do not. This gap births digital inequality. It does not take a lot of work to notice that South Africa is a divided country; the division is evident in a lot of fields.

The digital divide can be linked to at least 3 main causes; education, income levels, and geographical restrictions. There is a common thread that links all three causes, perhaps this scenario will help clarify what I mean by that – of course the following scenario is composed under ideal circumstances where people progress based on merit, so here it goes… A person goes through all three tiers of the South African education system; primary, secondary and tertiary. This person then finds gainful employment in a well-resourced urban area. This person will be part of the lucky few South Africans who have access to the best ICT infrastructure because their level of education afforded them an opportunity to access a desirable income level in a prime geographical spot.

One’s level of education is not as important as one’s income level and to a lesser extent geographic positioning; the income level is the main factor when it comes to accessing the best service with regards to ICT. Your highest education level can be Grade 2 but if you have managed to finesse the system and have amassed considerable wealth and are based in the bundus you can pay top dollar to have the same Internet connection as someone who resides in a metropolitan area.

D.R.E.A.M = Data Rules Everything Around Me.

Only 10.4 % of South African households have direct access to the Internet according to the Household Survey published by Statistics South Africa in May of 2019. Direct access can be understood as Wi-Fi, fixed broadband or fibre connections. Most South Africans rely on mobile data packages for their dose of the net. The price of these packages further excludes a significant percentage of South Africans, making Internet access a privilege for the selected few.

Giraffe, an automated recruitment platform, indicated that 29 % of South African workers earned less than the mandated national minimum wage of R3, 500. Workers earning above what is legally acceptable earned an average of R6, 400. These salaries often support multiple dependents making things like Internet access less of a priority for most South Africans. The cost for connectivity is however a burden felt across all income levels. The #DataMustFall movement of 2016 was primarily propelled by the middle class, the movement made it all the way to parliament.

The government has faced some heat from service providers; they claim government’s turtle towards auctioning high demand spectrum and digital migration are the reasons for lack of reasonable data prices. Government works with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) in addressing the issues raised by the service providers and consumers, ICASA regulates the communications sector in the interest of the general public.

The #DataMustFall movement put more steam in a train that was already in motion towards making data within reach for more South Africans. ICASA and the Competition Commission (CompCom) in partnership with the key mobile service providers presented real change on 10 March, 2020. Vodacom announced that its monthly data bundles would be reduced by over 30%, this reduction meant that the mobile data network’s consumers would collectively save R2.7 billion in data costs. MTN also agreed to reduce its price for monthly bundles by between 30% to 50%.

Vodacom and MTN are the top 2 mobile service providers in the country; the new data prices took effect in April, 2020. Cell C and Telkom Mobile are seen as the challenger companies in the mobile services arena, the outcome facilitated by ICASA and the CompCom meant that the playing field was somewhat leveled. Fair competition between the service providers gives consumers better deals.

Access to everything from entertainment to academia requires data. There are people who believe the relative democratic nature of the Internet presents content creators with access to bigger audiences. There are multiple variables to be factored in when making such a statement in relation to South Africa. Entertainers, artists, and other culture practitioners have been forced to reconfigure their operating systems to fit into the current setup where the Internet is the primary host for their work. The Internet’s currency is data; data opens up the web for both creator and consumer. Performers have jumped on the virtual presentation bandwagon with the hope of reaching as many viewers as possible.

Making the performances virtual does not magically make the content accessible to the majority; the same issues of inequality exist on the Internet as they do on the ground. The people who could not afford the tickets to the live shows are likely the same people who use their data sparingly. The amount of data consumed by streaming video depends on the quality (resolution) of the video and the device used to stream said video. Video streaming services have different levels of quality; low, Standard Definition, High Definition, and Ultra High Definition or 4k. The lowest quality consumes at least 300MB per hour and 4K consumes at least 7.2GB per hour.

A majority of South Africans simply do not have means to buy enough data to watch even an hour of their favourite artist’s live stream. The people who have enough data to actually watch these virtual concerts are a fraction of the total number of people who get the artists’ music on Fakaza. The average price of 1GB of data in South Africa is R106.20; this is based on the mobile data packages offered by Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, Telkom Mobile and Rain. Streaming an hour of video content on your phone on the lowest quality possible means you would have used more than a quarter of your 1GB. R106.20 is quite heavy for a significant portion of South Africans, which means they often buy the time-based data bundles offered by the top 4 mobile networks. Data is indeed a luxury in South Africa, the country came in at 143rd place out of 230 countries in a data pricing survey conducted by Cable, a UK based mobile broadband comparison website. The brief breakdown of video streaming is a glimpse into what the second entry on The Digital Divide series of articles. The next entry will show how practitioners in entertainment, culture and academia understand access to the Internet in relation to their respective fields.

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