With South Africa in a 21-day lockdown, many schools and companies are working from home and having virtual meetings – with the accompanying cost-of-data implications.
However, some mobile operators have implemented several measures to minimise disruptions for communities, businesses, school children and families across the country, largely on the back of the Competition Commission’s Data Service Market Inquiry report.
Released in December 2019 after a two-year investigation, the report found that the cost of mobile data was too high for SA consumers and called on MTN and Vodacom to cut their data prices by 30% to 50% or face prosecution. Both operators signed agreements with the commission in March.
At the end of March, MTN amplified its monitoring of critical infrastructure to ensure maximum network availability to customers in order to accommodate increased work-from-home traffic.
As far as Covid-19 is concerned, MTN zero-rated a USSD line (*130*119#) for reporting infections and obtaining other critical information. It also introduced a 20 megabyte (MB) Ayoba Data Lifeline that can be accessed via the Ayoba app, allowing concerned family members and friends to stay in touch for free. It is also working with the Department of Health to raise awareness of the official coronavirus WhatsApp channel (060 012 3456).
With the Department of Basic Education and the Siyavula Foundation, the operator is helping to ensure that Grade 10, 11 and 12 learners receive their curriculum material over the coming weeks through an e-learning platform.
In addition, the MTN MoMo app allows for free peer-to-peer cash payments under R200 and negates the need to use cash, a major infection vector.
Vodacom, the country’s largest mobile operator with about 44 million subscribers, has cut data prices by up to 40% and is providing free data for accessing essential services through its zero-rated platform ConnectU with immediate effect. The value of these initiatives will come to about R2.7-billion over the next year.
The mobile operator is also in partnership with Discovery, the country’s largest health insurance provider, offering the public free, virtual consultations with doctors to help diagnose and treat those exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19.
The public can go on to the Discovery or Vodacom websites, or use the Discovery app to begin self-screening. Vodacom expects to make the service available shortly via the *111# USSD.
Telkom and Samsung, together with the government, have developed a ‘track and trace database’ to identify the locations of those who may have contracted the virus. It uses data from a person’s phone to track where they have been and identify those they have potentially exposed to the virus, according to Reuters.
Telkom and Samsung are distributing 1 500 handsets to people hired to track and trace people in the provinces hardest hit by the virus. The phones will be connected for free using Telkom’s FreeMe packages for the next six months “easing the current backlog and fast-tracking their ability to track and trace cases around the country”.
Trackers will travel around the country to find primary and secondary contacts and get testing to those people.
FNB Connect says it will reduce data prices by up to 55% in April. In addition, it will double its customers’ data on their Lifestyle plans without any price increase. It will also be giving its customers 1 gigabyte (GB) of free data during the national lockdown, with a validity period of 30 days. This lockdown data allocation is in addition to the Free Connect allocations that customers with qualifying transactional accounts receive monthly.
World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck says the network operators are performing a careful balancing act to bring down the price of data without damaging their revenues too much.
“We have seen all of them cooperate in bringing down the price of entry-level packages, with Vodacom … announcing a 40% cut in its 50MB bundle, from R20 to R12.
“MTN is giving 20MB of data free every day via its Ayoba platform.
“These are the most useful contributions yet to making bandwidth more affordable to low-income users.”
Goldstuck adds that education, health, job and government sites have been zero-rated, broadly allowing free access from all operators.
“However, all these changes have been a result of intervention by the Competition Commission,” he points out. “We have not seen the operators make further significant steps in easing the burden of lockdown for the public.”