Icasa’s proposal that data should not expire is a good move but more is needed


It’s not quite the #DataMustFall that people have been begging for, but telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has given us #DataMustNotExpire.

Icasa has published draft regulations in the Government Gazette stipulating new time frames for the expiry of data. This is a good step, and such proactivity should be rewarded.

Cellular operators obviously want to ensure regular income and consistency of network use, so they sell data bundles. But if that bundle expires, these operators punish their own customers for consuming more of the thing they are actually selling. It makes no sense. Why penalise your own customer for consuming more of what you want to sell them?

A persistent consumer complaint is that data bundles expire – which critics often suggest might contravene the Consumer Protection Act.

Previous interventions by Icasa have brought the cost of voice calls down, and given smaller operators like Cell C and Telkom Mobile a chance to compete.

But Icasa has made a terrible mistake. While it’s obviously a good development that one purchases for a virtual commodity that technically has no expiration date, if you look at the sliding scale for such expirations it really still punishes the poorer end of the market.

If you buy 20 Gigabyte (GB) it last up to two years, but the 1-50 Megabyte (MB) package will only last 10 days and 50-500MB only 30 days. Going up in data-package size is advantageous as it extends the longevity of this non-expiring digital commodity. According to Icasa’s draft regulations, 500MB-1GB will last two months, 1-5GB (three months), 5-10GB (six months), 10-20GB (a year) and 20GB or more (two years).

The less you earn, the more careful you with the amount of something you buy; and even if buying in bulk is ultimately cheaper, people don’t have the cash flow to do that. So, as will all things from washing powder to mielie meal sold in smaller packages, poor people tend to buy in the smallest increment they can. The smaller data bundles – which still expire the soonest – are those bought by the bottom of the market.

South Africa needs to grow the number of people – especially the youngsters who will ultimately be the next wave of entrepreneurs and workers – using the mobile internet and digital world that now runs the planet. We need engineers, computer scientists, artificial intelligence (AI) researchers, coders, and a new workforce of tech-savvy, internet-savvy go-getters.

The future of commerce is digital. We need to let our youth focus on learning new digital skills, being media-savvy in this new mobile world, instead of being terrified they will use up their airtime.

Data is like rain in the digital education Garden of Eden that the internet is for a hungry mind. Being online lets people buy online, spurring e-commerce. Tech-savvy kids also see the holes in the internet, like how to share video on desktop (YouTube) or post pictures via mobile (Instagram) or make calls through the internet (Skype) or send instant messages (WhatsApp, WeChat, Messenger) or plain old tweets (Twitter). South Africa’s youth are being forced to focus on the wrong thing, holding back their development. Instead of fear of data consumption, we need to replace mobile data anxiety with fearless exploration. These data expiry rules are a good step, but they need greater thought. And more bite.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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