Source: Soapbox Communications
South Africans are acutely aware of the alarming disparity in our society between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. It permeates into almost every aspect of our everyday reality, from education, healthcare and housing to connectivity. Over the past decade, connecting to the internet has become an essential part of daily modern life. We depend on it for everything from communication, education, work, news and entertainment to searching for jobs, friends, love and directions.
Yet in South Africa, low-income people living in underserved communities pay more for data than those in the leafy suburbs. Not only do people in townships pay more per gigabyte, they also pay a larger percentage of their income towards it. On average, people in the townships pay up to R200 per gigabyte (GB) of data depending on the data bundles they buy. At these rates, internet access makes up 18% to 28% of many people’s daily income. Meanwhile, the middle class pays an average of R2 per GB of data, which constitutes an average of 0,15% of their income.
The main reason for this divide is lack of access to affordable internet from home or safe spaces nearby. In its absence, people access the internet through their phones on the GSM network (3G and 4G primarily), thereby incurring the much higher rates of the limited mobile operators.
This has been an issue for years, but COVID has put a spotlight on the stark daily contrast between those who can afford monthly contracts – with the savings you get when buying data in bulk – and those who have to access the internet from their phones. The ‘digital divide’, separating kids who have access to wifi and devices they need to study online from those who don’t, has become vast and entrenches our overwhelming inequality. A recent Nids/Cram study estimates that 750 000 children have been lost from the school system during the pandemic. A Daily Maverick article states, “our pre-existing inequalities and digital divides put blended and online learning out of reach for the majority.” The negative implications for the future of these children and their children are profound.
Cape Town-based internet service provider TooMuchWifi is bringing affordable internet to these underserviced areas. Although they started before COVID, the pandemic has accelerated the need for this essential service. CEO Ian Thomson says, “When my co-founder realised what his township-based domestic worker and millions of other South Africans were paying for internet access compared to him, we decided to do something about it at scale.” They started TooMuchWifi with a mission to bring fast and affordable internet to underserviced, densely populated areas, like townships. Fast forward and the company has brought down the monthly spend for many of their customers to less than 2%. People can now access the internet at under R4/ GB This is up to 20 times the value of mobile network operator data.