Load shedding highlights importance of ICASA regulations
By Koketso Moeti
For almost a month, South Africa has been undergoing rotating load shedding – or rolling blackouts – owing to the country’s power utility Eskom battling to meet electricity demand. These blackouts are now creating cellphone signal blackouts due to networks reportedly struggling to keep their towers running.
The impact of these signal blackouts is particularly devastating for low-income consumers. Research shows they rely on small data bundles and by the time network returns, their data bundle may have expired. A recent academic study supported this research, which involved a group of people keeping diaries to monitor their data use.
One of these diarists was Thandiwe, a hairdresser who can only afford to purchase R12 worth of data a month. So if Thandiwe were to use that R12 to buy a 1GB hourly data bundle, but didn’t finish it, she’d have to buy a new data bundle for it to rollover – but she would have already spent her data budget for the entire month.
This further worsened in instances of load shedding, which may mean that if she were unable to access her network, Thandiwe would have lost her monthly supply of data without possibly having used it. This is just one example of just how much low-income consumers are prejudiced by the current terms of rollover. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Just last year consumers won a significant victory when the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) announced regulations, aimed at protecting mobile data consumers. The regulations will, among other benefits, require mobile networks to provide consumers with an option to roll-over their data rather than having to forfeit unused data. This would ensure that consumers are able to get their full value for money, even during load shedding.
Prior to implementation, Vodacom announced that they would charge a fee for the rollover of data – a cynical attempt to extort consumers for enjoying the benefits of the regulations. Not only were the fees outrageous, but for consumers buying hourly or daily bundles, the fees would have cost almost the same as the data bundle they would be using. Consumer outrage and regulator action forced them to back track, but the battle is not yet over.
Even though they aren’t charging directly for the data rollover, Vodacom together with MTN have set conditions that still require consumers to spend money to have their data rollover. According to Vodacom’s terms and conditions, consumers will be required to purchase a bundle of the same size to enable their data to rollover. MTN too requires that you buy another bundle to ensure that your data rolls over, although with them, this can be a bundle of any size. Again, low-income consumers who may not be able to afford another bundle are particularly prejudiced by this requirement.
The major mobile networks have already claimed that load shedding, which they have no control over, will have a negative impact on reducing the cost of data. However, consumers should not pay the price especially with regulations in place that should be protecting them from not getting value for money this way.
It is not the first time that mobile network operators act in ways that are meant to subvert the regulations. Last year, almost 24 hours before the regulations were meant to be implemented, a legal challenge was launched by South Africa’s big mobile operators leading to a massive delay. Months later, a settlement was reached with all parties agreeing to comply by 1 March 2019.
Despite their efforts, it’s not all gloom and doom. Consumer pressure led to the adoption of the regulations. It also forced MTN and Vodacom to significantly reduce out of bundle prices. Also, the Competition Commission is due to release its report, following its market inquiry into data costs.
Consumers must get involved in ensuring that the benefits of the regulations are enjoyed by all. One way of doing this is through submitting complaints to network operators if not enjoying the benefits. amandla.mobi is encouraging people to forward the responses received to the complaints, including the reference numbers provided which will be part of a mass complaint to ICASA, among other actions. Consumers cannot be held ransom by mobile network operators who are intent on not acting in good faith.
Consumer outrage has worked before because after all, these same ruthless, profit-maximising corporates are dependent on us for their profits.
* This is a slightly edited version of an op-ed originally published by The Star.