ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK: Icasa falls a bundle short of protecting the poor
The problem with the draft regulations is that they do not address the fundamental flaw in the structure of data pricing in South Africa
You could be forgiven for cheering draft regulations issued by Icasa this week.
The telecommunications regulator issued a detailed set of rules for how mobile network operators will be required to carry over data bundles, and deal with out-of-bundle charges.
For the first time, the operators will be barred from "expiring" data for a specified period. Until now, unused data bought as part of a bundle has expired at the end of the month of its validity.
In some cases, the unused portion could be carried over for a month, but rarely for longer.
And nothing stopped the operators from moving customers to out-of-bundle rates, which are prohibitively expensive.
Now, Icasa plans to make the practice illegal, requiring customers to be warned when either data or airtime use has reached half, three-quarters, 90% and 100% of the allocated bundle.
Thereafter, they may not move a user into out-of-bundle data without their express opt-in.
The regulations make a good start, but only if the intention is to provide an initial framework. Yes, it is a draft, but draft rules usually reflect the extent to which a regulatory body has applied its collective mind.
If that is the case, a bruising battle may lie ahead.
The problem with the draft regulations is that they do not address the fundamental flaw in the structure of data pricing in South Africa.
As presented now, they would allow the operators to continue punishing the poor for being poor.
The loudest cheers heard for the proposed rules were for the requirement that large data bundles - more than 20GB - will survive 24 months. Then there is a sliding scale, with 10GB to 20GB expiring after 12 months, 5GB to 10GB after 180 days, 1GB to 5GB after 90 days, and 500MB to 1GB after 60 days.
Most of these are improvements, although it can be argued that many data packages can already be carried over for a second 30 days. It is what happens next that makes little sense.
A 50MB-to-500MB bundle may expire after 30 days, and any smaller bundles can be wrested away from the legitimate purchaser of the data after only 10 days.
No wonder the operators are declining to comment. They must be delighted.
However, if Icasa allows these rules to stand, it will be letting down the poor in three obvious ways.
First, it fails to recognise that lower-income data users tend to buy small bundles because that is all they can afford to allocate from their monthly budgets.
By allowing these bundles to expire, Icasa is in effect forcing the repurchase of bundles more regularly, putting a strain on tightened budgets.
Second, it is taking away something that has been purchased.
Third, it is protecting the wealthy, while failing to protect the poor, thus widening the digital divide.
And then there is the matter of what is not in the regulations.
While it protects users from going out of bundle, it says nothing about what happens when they have to go out of bundle.
This is where one of the most iniquitous elements lurks, namely punitive pricing for out-of-bundle data.
If Icasa fails to step in there, it will be failing the South African consumer.
• Goldstuck is the founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter @art2gee