Telecommunications operators who won bids in South Africa’s recent broadband spectrum auction will be required to zero-rate all mobile content provided by public benefit organisations. This measure is reportedly contained in the licence requirements for the auction and represents a commitment to enabling people to download education, health, and welfare resources on their own phones at no charge. The new licence conditions build on existing social benefit requirements for licensees (rolled out in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic), that connect thousands of public service institutions such as schools and police stations to the internet.
During South Africa’s State of Disaster, temporary spectrum was awarded to telecommunications operators obliging them to zero-rate local websites that provide educational material or COVID-19-related health information. The websites of more than 1,000 institutions were zero-rated in this way. The spectrum auction was already set to increase broadband activity in South Africa and lower the costs of voice and data communication, and this requirement for licensees recognises data as a public utility beyond the country’s State of Disaster, which ended on 4 April 2022.
This provision signals an important step for internet rights and freedoms, particularly access to information, and further illustrates an acceptance by South African policymakers and regulators that access and connectivity are a priority.
While the outcome of the spectrum auction was subject to pending litigation initiated by Telkom due to take place 11 to 14 April 2022, South Africa’s communications regulator ICASA issued a statement on 8 April 2022 announcing that it had reached a settlement with Telkom.
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