Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

Internet access should be regarded as a basic municipal service alongside water, sanitation, and electricity, a report by  local lobby groups says.  

Free basic municipal services are those provided by the government mainly to poor, indigent or lower-income households. The 2018 General Household Survey conducted by Stats SA has revealed that 64.7% of SA households had at least one member who had access to, or used the internet, either at home, work, place of study or internet café.  However, only 10.4% of SA households had access to the internet at home.

According to a World Bank report, a 10 percentage point increase in fixed broadband penetration increases growth in GDP by 1.21% in developed economies and 1.38% in developing economies. SA’s national broadband policy — SA Connect — sets out connectivity targets for schools, health facilities and government facilities, with an aim of 100% broadband access by 2030.

The lobby groups, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), the Interactive Advertising Bureau SA (IAB SA), and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) penned a report titled “Universal Access to the Internet and Free Public Access in SA”. According to the report, internet access is integral to providing an acceptable and reasonable quality of life.

The APC identifies the poor distribution of basic telecoms infrastructure as the main reason the internet is still unaffordable for many people in SA, particularly in rural areas.

The report puts forward a seven-point plan for achieving universal access to the internet and free public access in SA. The authors highlight that basic municipal services are provided for in SA in terms of the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act. The term “basic municipal services” is defined in the act as “a municipal service that is necessary to ensure an acceptable and reasonable quality of life and, if not provided, would endanger the public health or safety or the environment”.

Access to the internet should be included in the list of free basic municipal services, according to the report.

“Universal access to online information is necessary for the realisation of the full array of fundamental rights in SA. This has been recognised through domestic and international human rights commitments, and is central to achieving a more equitable and informed society,” the report says. “As a starting point, it may be prudent to tailor the service offering to the most vulnerable and indigent members of the population, who qualify in terms of the means tests for other basic municipal services.”

The authors suggest that there are multiple ways in which free access to the internet can be provided to the public. For instance, a token may be provided monthly, or collection points may be allocated to acquire the data.

They propose a minimum 1GB a month as an appropriate allocation to enable communications, web browsing and other online activity. This allocation should be transferable, and it should be technically permissible for multiple devices to connect simultaneously.

The aspects of the seven-point plan include free public access to the internet at government sites; zero-rated access to government websites and data; free public Wi-Fi;  digital literacy programmes; minimum protections in the provision of free access to the internet; and oversight and monitoring of the progressive realisation of free access to the internet.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za