Right2Know fight for affordable airtime

By Staff Writer

Lobby group Right2Know (R2K) claim that South Africans are paying exorbitant cell phone tariffs and that the main cell phone operators are stifling the public’s right to communicate at a fair price.


To make their point, the group planned a march on Wednesday 12 June to call for free basic and affordable telecommunications. The group aimed to hand over memorandums to Vodacom, MTN, the independent communications regulator (ICASA) and Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communication.


But according to reports, R2K members were unable to arrange sufficient transport to cater for all the people who wished to attend the march.


The right to be heard at a low cost
Murray Hunter, national coordinator of R2K, said an estimated 82.9% of people living in South Africa have a cell phone yet the high cost of airtime and data undermines the democratising potential of the mobile network. The R2K’s campaign aims to challenge the profiteering of cell phone companies and government’s failure to effectively regulate the cost of communication.


“The cost of communication is too high for people who are already struggling to put food on the table. South Africa’s  cellphone cost is the 6th highest in the world. The average networks pay for sms’s is R0, 026 while the average South African Pays 80c for an sms. This is an inflation of 3200%,” said Hunter.


What are cellphone networks doing to help consumers?
Vodacom spokesperson, Richard Boorman, explained that the base stations that cellphones connect to typically cost over R1 million each and that they have a limited capacity in terms of the number of calls and amount of data they can carry at any given time.


“This is why, at peak times, you can sometimes struggle on data speeds or getting calls to connect. To help alleviate this, we design products that encourage calls at lower demand periods for discounted prices. An example of this is our “Night Shift” product, which gives callers one hour of free calls per night for seven nights – just for recharging with R12.  We’ve got another product Vodacom4Less, which reduces pricing depending on the load on the local base station. We also have offers like Power Hour and Daily Free Calls. Taking all of these discounted and free minutes into account, the average price per minute on prepaid on Vodacom over the last year was R0.72,” said Boorman.


Justified rates
Boorman said that one of the main studies he saw this week used to compare cellphone call costs in South Africa to other countries, used a price per minute of R5.


He argued that this comparative tool made South Africa look very expensive. “With that kind of flawed data as an input, it’s unsurprising that South Africa came out as looking comparatively expensive.  The argument that the cost of sending an SMS is far lower than the price misses the point that the network has to be built and maintained and the entire corporate infrastructure supported for anything to be transmitted.  When it comes to looking at which companies are doing the most to spread access to communications, it’s worth keeping in mind that the state owned fixed-line operator only covers a small fraction of the population while Vodacom as a private company covers just fewer than 100% of the population,” said Boorman.


He added that the challenge is to make sure that wherever they have voice coverage, they also have data coverage. “This requires massive investment and Vodacom has already spent around R7 billion per year over the last few years,” said Boorman.
 

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