High mobile data costs stifle growth

> Lazarus Sauti

HARARE-ACCESS to information and the freedom of expression are key pillars of democracy – a cornerstone to economic growth, and the internet, without doubt, plays a crucial role in propagating these digital rights.

The open nature of the internet is a driving force of sustainable economic development, says the United Nations Human Rights Council, in its June 2016 non-binding resolution titled, ‘The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet’.

The resolution affirms the significance of applying a comprehensive human rights-based approach in providing and expanding access to the internet.

It also calls upon all states to formulate and adopt national internet-related public policies that have the objective of universal access as well as enjoyment of human rights at their core.

High costs of mobile data in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries, conversely, are a barrier to internet usage.

According to data from Research ICT Africa, the national average cost for one Gigabyte (GB) of monthly data in Zimbabwe was US$30, Angola US$22.62, Swaziland US$32.33, Zambia US$10, South Africa US$4.35, Malawi US$2.69 and Namibia US$2.23.

The recent attempt by the Postal and Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) to floor the price for mobile data to 2 US cents per Megabyte (MB) would have also made data astronomically expensive in Zimbabwe.

Ropafadzo Mangwengwe, 18, from Shamva in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland Central province wishes to access the internet, but sharp mobile data prices are hindering her and other rural dwellers, fueling the digital divide between urban and rural inhabitants.

“Mobile data prices are steep in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries such as Angola and Swaziland, stifling access to information, the right to communication as well as fueling the digital gap between the rich and poor.

“Sadly, citizens in rural areas who dream of joining the information superhighway, are mostly affected,” human rights activist, Simbarashe Namusi, says.

He adds that high mobile data prices in Zimbabwe are stifling access to information, a fundamental right enshrined in Section 62 of the Constitution.

As for university student, Nyasha Moyo, high mobile data prices are affecting her scholarly work.

“The internet is a great tool for research, but high costs of mobile data across all networks in the country are inhibiting my ability to access and be active on the internet,” she says.

Media personality, Bornwell Matowa, believes the high cost of mobile data in Zimbabwe is stalling the country’s internet penetration – a measure of the percentage of the population that connects to the internet – which is currently at 50.1 percent, according to recent figures shared by Potraz, at the end of September 2016.

“High mobile data prices, in addition to the poor infrastructure support base, are counter-productive. Forlornly, they do not only hold back economic development, but also stall the country’s internet penetration,” he says.

Considering that the bulk of internet access in Zimbabwe is via mobile networks, information technology expert, Stalyn Chingarandi, believes high data prices are curtailing socio-economic activities as well as killing innovations, a fact supported by Econet Group founder and executive chair, Strive Masiyiwa, who adds: “It makes it difficult to introduce new services such as such Mobile TV, when a floor price is set for data; very unusual.”

Information science researcher, Collence Chisita, also believes high cost of mobile data goes against the principle of network neutrality, which holds that wired and wireless internet service is a utility like gas, water, electricity and landline phone service that should be available to everyone.

He, therefore, says data should be free so as to promote research and development, and urges the government together with Potraz and other stakeholders in the communications sector to take deliberate actions through a firm stance on data pricing if the country is to seriously promote internet access and penetration.

“Instead of pricing mobile data and restricting access to the internet in the process, the government and other relevant stakeholders in the communications sector should work towards broadening access as well as making mobile data free for citizens,” he says.

Chisita adds that the government should equip schools, especially in rural areas with computers so as to promote the uptake of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

“We need information resource centres as well as ICT facilities in our schools, especially in rural areas so as to equip students with necessary ICT skills, social media skills and close the digital divide,” he says.

January 2017
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