/ 6 September 2022

Why the sale of state-owned Telkom will be a blow to the poor

Telkom Mobile Has The Lines Buzzing About Its Prices And, Surprisingly, Its Service
Considering the high cost of data in the country, the South African government should build up this vital public entity rather than sell it to the highest bidder, whose interest is profit not service

Telecommunications networks are an important part of national and global communication network infrastructure, enabling people to talk over the phone and exchange information in real time. For instance, today I can simply share a WhatsApp message or email with someone in the UK or Zimbabwe through my smartphone if it has data and get an immediate response or acknowledgement from the recipient.

That’s how easy it is. Globalisation has simplified communication through modern technology and made redundant old ways of exchanging messages, including through facsimiles, telegrams and manually posted letters that took weeks before the intended recipients could receive the message. 

While countries such as Israel, Italy and India have made progress in ensuring that more and more people have access to affordable data, South Africa still lags behind in terms of data affordability, ranking at 135 in the 2022 global mobile data price comparison with an average price of $2.04 per one gigabyte of data according to the cable.co.uk. Ghana has the cheapest mobile data in sub-Saharan Africa at number 40 with an average price of $0.61 per gigabyte, followed by Somalia at 42 with an average price of $0.63 per gigabyte and Réunion at 46 at $0.70 per gigabyte.

It is clear that the price of data is ridiculously out of reach for many South Africans. It’s even a matter of life and death in a country where many are living way below the food poverty line of R663 per month, according to Statistics South Africa. What the high cost of data means in South Africa is that the poor have to choose between buying data, which they use to access information online and apply for employment, and putting food on the table.

This is why the ongoing bid by one of South Africa’s biggest telecoms giants, MTN, to take over state-owned Telkom is not good news for the poor. Given its national infrastructure footprint as a state-owned entity, Telkom is best placed to reach all corners of South Africa to ensure that the majority of the people have access to sound telecommunication infrastructure, including affordable data. 

Experience has taught us that private capital is after profit, with no regard for the poor. As noted, the price of data in South Africa is among the highest, largely driven by private mobile telephone networks, including MTN, which are enjoying a national monopoly, albeit with poor network coverage in rural communities like Giyani in Limpopo where these cellular companies have not invested fully in terms of infrastructure.

That is why we cannot celebrate MTN’s intent to take over Telkom because this will likely mean that data costs will only get more expensive. For example, Telkom has the lowest uncapped wi-fi deals between South Africa’s biggest two mobile telephone networks, MTN and Vodacom, with prices for different options starting from over R200. At the moment, any uncapped home internet offering from MTN and Vodacom is more than double the price of Telkom, with the two’s prices being suspiciously similar.

Telkom is a public asset, and one of the few well-run state-owned telecommunications firms. It is majority-owned by taxpayers, through the government, and government employees through the Public Investment Corporation. Therefore, it cannot be sold to the private sector which is obsessed with profit-making, other than ensuring that everyone, including the poor, enjoys affordable internet and voice data connection. 

Instead, the state-owned telecoms company should be capacitated to grow and continue to serve South Africans, including through maintenance of the existing infrastructure, especially in rural areas where the commercially driven mobile telephone networks are not willing, or are reluctant, to invest.

Internet connectivity is no longer a measure of wealth or luxury. In a world where the internet drives our daily business activities, including in workplaces and the education sector, being connected to cyberspace means everything. For a country with one of the lowest internet penetrations in the world, especially for the poor, the South African government should be working to bridge this internet divide by ensuring universal internet access through Telkom, and not by selling it to private interests.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.