RIA News March 2020: Message from our Executive Director

In her introduction to RIA’s March 2020 newsletter, our executive director, Alison Gillwald, highlights the significance of effective digital connectivity for all South Africans in lockdown as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which apart from posing a massive health risk, has exposed South Africa’s digital inequality with dire consequences for the most vulnerable in our society. 

As the COVID-19 virus makes its impact felt globally, here in Cape Town where the RIA office is located, it’s brought home the need and significance of access to technology as large numbers of people, including the RIA team, are self-quarantining and working remotely from home. Of course, this is a privilege that only a small number of South Africans, and indeed Africans, throughout the continent can afford.

COVID-19 has starkly highlighted digital inequality in South Africa. It has also highlighted our abandonment or neglect of fundamental digital policies to get the citizenry connected. Instead of leveraging existing national public and private network investments as a priority project to get all public buildings connected and to provide free public wi-fi through an entirely feasible five year plan, SA Connect has been left as a rag tag, undercapitalised state project with the weakest national broadband operator, Broadband Infraco, left not surprisingly unsuccessfully, to champion digital equality. The 2016 connectivity targets have not been met – never mind 2020 targets – and the parallel projects of systemically building local digital capabilities both at the individual, SME and public sector levels, sorely lacking. While the leadership of the country have moved onwards and forwards to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they have left their compatriots behind.

So, a relatively small number of South Africans are well placed to harness the benefits of digitalisation as we embark on the 21 day lockdown. As the private and some of the elite public schools shift their teaching programmes online and the relatively small number of South Africans who actively consume and transact online go into lockdown with some comfort about how they will get food and other essentials, most South Africans are not. Around half of them are not even able to make use of the meagre 20 Megs some mobile companies have made free, as they cannot afford smartphones, so are not online.

Of those who have smart devices, even with the significant drop in data prices announced by the mobile operators by April, large numbers of people are still unable to afford to be always online and lack the digital skills to be able to use the services effectively. This crisis has just highlighted what is normal for many, not the ‘new-normal’.

As this newsletter was going out, the Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni Abrahams, announced that ICASA will make additional radio spectrum available to ensure that the network can keep up with additional demand during the lock down. This is to be welcomed and demonstrates how quickly things can move when there is political will to do so.

Although this is only a temporary assignment of spectrum, we should not miss the opportunity to use this policy and regulatory intervention innovatively. ICASA was reported earlier this week as saying it was exploring various options to get affordable services to the poor and to remote areas. It referred to some of the alternative access strategies RIA has recommended including enabling use of unused spectrum for secondary use (TV white space/dynamic spectrum), which operate at around a tenth of the cost of GSM services; enabling unlicensed (simple default registration) by community or micro operators where there would be no spectrum interference or no networks operate; and setting aside more spectrum for free public use.

If initiatives such as these were enabled with access to temporary spectrum, we could use this opportunity as an experiment to see how different solutions might viably address the diverse needs for broadband services in the country and reduce the extreme digital inequality that exists. At the end of this crisis, it is imperative that we do not return to the status quo that has not done justice to our constitution’s commitment to equality or the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights’ declaration of the Internet as an essential enabler of the exercise of fundamental rights in contemporary society. COVID-19 brings this into sharp relief.

RIA will be using this time to review policies and implementation failures and proposing alternative access and digital inclusion strategies drawing on our own research and engaging with local and international experts through a series of podcasts, online panel discussions and blogs. So, keep watching this space.

In this newsletter, RIA’s researcher, Shamira Ahmed, takes up some of these issues in her blog on how Covid-19 exposes the defects in South Africa’s digital economy.

Meanwhile, just days before “social distancing” set a new norm for socially responsible behaviour during this era of global pandemic, RIA was honoured to sit down with the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Professor Joseph Cannataci. Listen to Alex Comninos talking to him about the challenge that Artificial Intelligence (AI) poses to privacy.

Also, Prof Nick Couldry of LSE  tells RIA Associate and LSE doctoral candidate, Anri van der Spuy, why he believes policymakers and data subjects alike urgently need to face up to some uncomfortable truths about our relationship with data today, which he conceptualises as ‘data colonialism’.

So much to keep you busy during the lockdown in those countries that are experiencing it. We will be engaging more online in the coming weeks and months in the hopes of coming out of this global crisis with a better understanding of the national policies and global governance needed for developing countries to progress towards greater digital equality.

Read RIA’s March 2020 newsletter here.