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Internet access must be a human right

Tomorrow is Human Rights Day in South Africa, yet the digital divide here is one of the worst in the world, writes TAURIQ BROWN, CEO of TooMuchWifi.

There is no question that technology has the ability to resolve some of the challenges faced by township residents and those living in low-income settlements, including transforming them into more inclusive micro-economies. This is especially true of South Africa’s digital divide, which is exacerbated by uneven broadband distribution. 

While the middle-class pay on average 0.15% of their incomes on Wi-Fi and data, low-income South Africans spend up to 21% of their incomes on data, making “always-on” out of reach for most. This prevents them from accessing education, employment, entertainment, engagement and general services information, among other. This stark reality puts millions on the backfoot, excluding them from entering into and contributing to the economy, holding them tightly in a web of unemployment and inaccessibility from the fourth industrial revolution in which new tech-oriented jobs are fast being created.

This is a travesty which must be addressed if we are going to close the digital divide, and prevent it from getting even larger, especially among the youth, of which nearly 50% have no work.

So critical is this need that access to the internet is among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 9) of the United Nations. Its vision is to significantly increase access to Information and Communication Technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries. To achieve this, however, requires major information and communication technology (ICT) investments in local populations, especially those in poor communities or rural areas.

Fortunately, solutions do exist, and the cost of data is decreasing across ISPs. But it’s still not enough, especially if one considers that, according to the latest Household Affordability Index for February 2023, the price of an average basket of goods costs R4,928.34 a month. This far exceeds the monthly breadline of R624 per person, i.e. the amount of money a person needs to buy food to survive. 

Add in the 18% electricity price hike that applies from 1 April 2023 and the expected R2.44/litre of petrol and R3.35/litre of diesel increases next month – not to mention the steep interest rate cycle we are currently in and the resultant inflation spike – it is little wonder then that so few can afford data or digital devices.

To help overcome this, TooMuchWifi has spent the past seven years giving communities access to extremely affordable Wi-Fi through its uncapped and hotspot options. Currently with 400,000 customers – individuals and SMEs – already using its service across 40 locations in the Western Cape, TooMuchWifi is giving poorer people a chance to be part of the ever-expanding online world in which the middle and higher classes live and work.

Against this background, in November 2022 TooMuchWifi made the business decision to slash prices by 43% in an effort to assist consumers and small businesses to remain connected. This price reduction will remain in place, and it has been the driver of recent hypergrowth, tripling monthly sales. The new fees can save customers R300+ a month. Current prices start from R295 per month for uncapped lines and R5 for hotspot top-ups.

The company, backed by the Mineworkers Investment Company (MIC), which owns 24% of TooMuchWifi, is now on a significant drive to increase its customer base by growing its presence country-wide, with the aim of expanding into Africa within two to four years. To achieve this, the company has secured a significant amount of debt and equity funding.

The co-founder and outgoing CEO, Ian Thomson, laid the foundations for a highly scalable organisation, one that reaches people across South Africa and ultimately the world by providing access to highly affordable Wi-Fi.

The business has grown exponentially at 300% year-on-year and my highly skilled team and I are now strategically planning to expand our operations so that we can reach exponentially more people. Access to the internet is not a Sustainable Development Goal for nothing; it is a human right that can greatly improve lives. 

From the small Spaza shop owner to the 16-old studying for exams, having access to Wi-Fi is vital for human survival, especially as we enter the era of 4IR and AI evolution. Being internet-able and literate is an essential life skill if people are to move forward and improve their circumstances and incomes.

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