Picture: 123RF/SAM74100
Picture: 123RF/SAM74100

How much would it really hurt Telkom, Cell C, MTN and Vodacom to zero-rate the bulk of their internet connectivity as a whole during the three-week shutdown?

Mobile operators will not charge for access to health and education internet sites. 

In doing their part to heed calls made by the Competition Commission to make online access more affordable, the number of zero-rated sites has increased, during this time.

Perhaps zero-rating the whole internet is a bit unreasonable but in a time of crisis, what is an essential service?

Illustration: RUBY-GAY MARTIN
Illustration: RUBY-GAY MARTIN

Many people have streamed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s coronavirus updates and announcements on sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Does this not justify making social media — at the very least — free, just for the next month?

Promotions can be run. Operators could get some of the social-media companies to chip in to offer special bundles to subsidise people accessing their sites for free. Telecoms make back the lost revenues, while social-media sites potentially sign up more people and increase their user bases. 

The next set of financial results for local network operators will be a good time for analysts to see how data price cuts affect companies such as Vodacom and MTN. Data has become a beacon of new revenue growth in a declining voice market. Vodacom expects to recover its R2.7bn lost from new upcoming data price cuts over time due to increased traffic, while MTN expects its recovery from June for the same reason.

Why not include zero-rated social media in that mix for good measure?

Looking for a loophole during Covid-19 country shutdown

This is clearly a government scrambling to deal with an unprecedented crisis, and it is working against vested interests in both business and labour, and its citizens.

Minerals and energy minister Gwede Mantashe summed it up during his first public comments directed at both industries in the country in the way the shutdown would be enacted to curtail the spread of the virulent Covid-19.

Business were fully behind the 21-day lockdown, but wanted to operate as normal, he said, while unions were looking for paid leave for their members.

In minerals alone there are 450,000 people. Since president Cyril Ramaphosa announced the lockdown on Monday, his ministers have been scrambling to give effect to his proclamation.

It’s an impossibly large task.

No business wants to shut down and lose revenue. Workers are frightened for their futures and don’t want to lose their jobs but don’t want to forfeit leave and salaries during the shutdown.

The energy industry has largely been given the nod to continue operations as an essential service, both in liquid fuel production, supply and retail, while Eskom has to keep generating electricity from coal mined nearby.

Mines will look for every loophole to keep production going, using their smelters and refineries in a limited way to continue supplying markets and generating revenue.

However, it’s clear that underground mines, where thousands of workers gather on the surface and then get into cramped metal boxes to be dropped into the earth, will have no choice but to shut, keeping just the most essential services of pumping, ventilation and support intact.

These are unusual times and need drastic measures. The only way this lockdown will be effective is if everyone plays their part, setting aside narrow interests for the good of all. It’s a huge ask when balance sheets and jobs are at risk.​

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