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Picture: 123RF/ Pop Nukoonrat
Picture: 123RF/ Pop Nukoonrat

The government will require winners of SA’s recent multibillion-rand broadband spectrum auction to zero-rate all mobile content provided by public benefit organisations, a development to enable people to download education, health and welfare resources on their own phones at no charge.

The measures, contained in the licence requirements published before the long-awaited auction, expand on conditions attached to the temporary spectrum awarded to telecommunications operators during the national state of disaster obliging them to zero-rate local websites providing educational material or Covid-19-related health information. The websites of more than 1,000 institutions were zero-rated in this way.

“It’s a major breakthrough,” said David Harrison, CEO of the DG Murray Trust, which has lobbied the government for years to zero-rate websites of public benefit organisations.

“The disaster regulations paved the way and showed what could be done,” he said.

The new licence conditions build on existing social benefit requirements for licensees that oblige them to connect thousands of public service institutions such as schools and police stations to the internet.

Zero-rated websites with content that people can download at no cost on their own cellphones are important, because many people cannot access the free internet services provided at schools, libraries and other public institutions, said Harrison. “Cellphones are an incredible way of overcoming the digital divide. For the huge number of young people who are not in education, employment or training, this is the means to get information into their hands”

Yetu Infotech Collective spokesperson Mark Weinberg welcomed the decision to zero-rate the content provided by public benefit organisations.

“It means that at least some of the benefits of the internet will become universally available, and that will contribute very positively to our democracy and our economy,” he said.

The government raised R14.4bn with the spectrum auction, which saw the lion’s share of the bandwidth awarded to network giants MTN and Vodacom, with smaller allocations to Telkom, Rain, Cell C and Liquid Intelligent Technologies.

The auction has been a key aspect of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s reform agenda, which aims to make it easier and cheaper to do business and tackle unemployment.

MTN executive for corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan said it had proved hard to manage fraud, particularly for cloud-based URLs. “This is something we actively manage to ensure the fraudulent actions of a tiny minority is not to the detriment of the majority that use the service in a responsible way,” she said.

Details of the social benefit requirements of the new licensees had yet to be provided by the telecommunications regulator, she said.

“The ITA (invitation to apply) indicates on a high level what the licence conditions will be, but we don’t have the detailed obligations. It is worth noting the obligations will be split between operators, so (for example) we don’t yet know how many schools we will be required to connect,” she said.

A Vodacom spokesperson said the company would engage further with the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) on the spectrum licence obligations related to zero-rated content provided by public benefit organisations.

“As matters stand, we are encouraged by the fact that Icasa has taken cognisance of the various concerns of all spectrum licensees regarding the widespread abuse of these zero-rated services, as well as Icasa’s commitment to work closely with licensees to mitigate such abuse,” the spokesperson said.

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