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State’s latest free data plan panned

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The government’s recent announcement to reserve radio frequency spectrum for “community use” with the aim of providing “free basic data” to underserved areas via Wi-Fi hotspots has drawn both praise and criticism.

While the initiative aligns with the overarching principle of ensuring equitable access to the internet, an industry expert has labeled the plan as “vacuous.” The lack of detailed guidelines on eligibility criteria and data allocation, along with funding mechanisms, has raised concerns.

According to a government policy document, the allocation of free data will be determined per household, with the communications minister, currently Mondli Gungubele, tasked with defining the specifics through a regulatory framework in consultation with the regulatory authority, Icasa. However, crucial details such as funding sources remain unspecified.

The policy underscores the objective of leaving no one behind by advocating for the deployment of wireless local-area networks to meet the outlined objectives. However, critics argue that the policy lacks clarity on the practical implementation aspects, including the crucial question of backhaul infrastructure development to support Wi-Fi networks.

Paul Colmer, a spectrum specialist, criticizes the document for its vagueness, highlighting the absence of a clear strategy for data sourcing and funding. He points out the challenge of sustaining free data provision without a viable financial model, citing previous failed initiatives.

While the policy proposes the development of a handbook to assist private internet service providers in establishing community networks, Colmer contends that the wireless access providers have already developed such frameworks. He advocates for addressing existing barriers to deployment rather than reinventing solutions.

Colmer acknowledges progress made by Icasa in freeing up spectrum for Wi-Fi use but suggests government subsidies for rural Wi-Fi rollouts. However, he warns against the potential disincentive for private investment in underserved areas if free data provision undermines the business case for infrastructure deployment.