SA revolts against high phone charges

South African telephone subscribers, enraged by high rates charged by fixed-line provider Telkom, are turning on the government and on the company that has near-monopoly status.

Analysts attack Telkom regularly, complaining of high charges, especially for access to the internet, and warn that this could obstruct South Africa, which has the biggest economy in Africa, from achieving targeted annual growth of 6% from 2010.

A study by the Business Leadership group on 15 countries said ADSL costs in South Africa were 139% higher than the average rate in the nations surveyed. It said local calls at peak hours were 199% more expensive.

Clients are also objecting to what they see as poor service.

There are several critical sites on the internet, such as Hellkom and MyADSL, targeting Telkom.

Recently, the Telecommunications Action Group, set up in 2006, took out a full-page advertisement in the Mail & Guardian to criticise Telkom.

It also singled out the government for apathy and attacked the telecoms regulator as well.

“The more of this you read, the more infuriated you’ll become,” the advertisement said.

“South Africans continue to pay some of the highest prices for telephony services in the world. Internet access in South Africa is among the most expensive in the world [in fact, you’ll pay less for broadband in Morocco, Egypt, Botswana and Mozambique].”

Richard Franck, co-founder of the group, told Agence France-Presse: “We are asking for movement in telecoms policy across the board, not just on broadband, but also on basic services. We are not talking only about economics, we are talking about people’s daily lives.”

In the wake of growing criticism, Telkom — in which the South African government holds a 38% stake — has stated that it constantly adjusts pricing so that phones become more affordable for all.

The government on its part stresses that changes are under way.

“There have been initiatives to try to bring competition into the market,” said Communications Ministry spokesperson Albi Modise, pointing out that a second telephone provider, Neotel, launched operations in August last year.

“I don’t think there is a lack of political will. The liberalisation of the sector, the opening of the market to new players is not a Big Bang; it’s taking time.”

Neotel has promised to usher in sweeping changes in the sector but have not yet started offering services to individual clients.

Charley Lewis, telecommunications technology specialist at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University’s LINK centre, said that “pricing and services in telecommunications in South Africa” were “very much an issue.

“It is also an interesting sign of the advanced level of consumer activism in South Africa … quite unusual compared to other African countries.” — AFP

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Jerome Cartillier
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