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Zero-rating failing to bring Africa online

In a survey of how citizens of South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria use the internet when data is subsidised, no respondents said they came online through zero rating. Instead, zero rated services are used as one of many price control strategies.

The Mozilla-backed research, carried out by Research ICT Africa, found that significant barriers to internet access prevail in South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria.

This echoed research released two weeks ago by World Wide Worx, which showed in the Internet Access in South Africa 2017 report that affordability was a key obstacle in the way of Internet access for a large proportion of the population.

Research ICT Africa also found:

  • Various mobile data bundles (which are partially subsidized) tend to be more popular than zero rated offerings
  • In rural areas, the extent of internet use is limited by the sources of electricity to charge mobile phones, which need to be taken to different charging points, often overnight.
  • Digital skills and illiteracy greatly affect non-users as well – even those who have smart devices – limiting their internet use.
  • Being online, in particular on social media is perceived, in some cases, as interfering with users’ relationships.

“Moving beyond access challenges requires a rights-based approach to deal with barriers such as online privacy and security,” said Dr Alison Gillwald, Executive Director of Research ICT Africa. “The possibilities of achieving this in a context where offline rights to resources as basic as electricity do not exist is one of the biggest hurdles for users in South Africa.

“South Africans, instead of depend on or using zero rated data, are using subsidized services as one of many sophisticated cost-savings strategies,” said Jochai Ben-Avie, Senior Global Policy Manager at Mozilla. But there is a need to connect the unconnected and the focus should be more on barriers like electricity, digital literacy, competition, and gender power relations.

The research also showed:

  • Uptake of zero rating varied across the four countries. Awareness was low and scepticism of free services was high in Nigeria, whereas in Rwanda bundles with unlimited WhatsApp and Facebook were very popular. In Kenya and South Africa, the zero-rated services were welcomed for their cost-reducing nature.
  • There was substantial interest and uptake in Equal Rating-compliant, partially subsidized data bundles that provide access to the entire internet not just some parts of it (e.g., Cell C’s offering of 250MB between 1 am and 7 am for R6 in South Africa or an MTN bundle in Rwanda for Rwf 800 (USD 0.96) that provide 24 hours unlimited data).
  • Poor network quality and coverage limited the consumption of subsidised data since some respondents, especially in rural areas of Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa, reported that telcos with those offerings did not have coverage in their area. Indeed, many of these users only have access via the most expensive operator in that country.
  • Women face additional barriers to internet use, including concern of being exposed to inappropriate content online and its consequences in their intimate relationships and family responsibilities.

“More must be done to connect the unconnected,” says Ben-Avie. “This research makes clear that it’s critical we all focus more on barriers like healthy competition outside urban areas, electricity, digital literacy, and gender power relations.”

The research sees opportunity and a greater outlook in the future of internet use for these countries. Again echoing the World Wide Worx research, the study found that Infrastructural issues still need to be addressed in rural areas, in particular to increase quality of service, which would allow users to choose any operator offering the cheapest product. The intensity of use could be enhanced through redirecting universal services funds directed at access, often by subsidising the already planned roll out of services, towards supporting the rollout of public Wi-Fi points at all public facilities such as schools, clinics, libraries and police stations.

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