Vodacom Central Region, covering the Free State and Northern Cape provinces, has invested R181 million in the 2021/2022 financial year to increase network coverage, capacity and perform battery upgrades as part of its purpose-led goal of driving sustainable, inclusive connectivity. This brings investment into the region over the last three years to R550 million. The deployment includes connecting villages in parts of Northern Cape and Free State provinces that had been without network connectivity since the early 1990s, ushering in a new era of digital inclusion for the people living in these areas.
Part of Vodacom’s investment in the Region for the last financial year was earmarked for the installation of new 3G and 4G enabled base-station sites in 25 urban centres and in 15 rural areas. The Region launched its first live 5G network footprint in the Northern Cape province in September 2021 extending coverage for the region as part of Vodacom’s commitment to connecting the next digital billion, ensuring that no one is left behind. Delivering connectivity to these provinces is crucial, especially considering the latest figures from Stats SA: in 2019, only 5.4% of households in the Free State and less than 6% in the Northern Cape had access to the internet at home.
“The result of our network roll-out programme is that thousands of citizens in these provinces have now become active participants in our increasingly digitised society,” says Evah Mthimunye, Vodacom Central Region Managing Executive. “They now have reliable access to basic services and information online, can apply for jobs through digital portals, continue their education through e-learning platforms, connect to digital marketplaces, and more. Being connected brings incredible opportunities that better lives, which is why access must be democratised.”
Within South Africa’s households, Stats SA also noted that a mere 1.2% of those based in rural areas had online access at home. As such, a key focus for Vodacom was to deepen connectivity within South Africa’s rural communities, with the additional installations bringing the total number of rural sites up to 545 within the Free State and Northern Cape. Accelerating coverage across these far-flung rural areas is the first step to ensuring community members are able to get online, where they can access several zero-rated sites through ConnectU, browsing job portals or essential resources on health and education.
By December, online traffic in the region had seen a year-on-year increase of 60.2%, demonstrating the demand for online access and the success of VCR’s measures to meet this need. To support this surge in traffic, Vodacom also boosted the capacity of its networks, focusing on high-volume areas such as Bloemfontein, Kimberly, and Kathu.
The cost to communicate remains a big issue in South Africa. Vodacom has been on a pricing transformation journey to reduce data and voice rates to drive adoption across all its markets. To drive prices down, the region adopted the use of personalised platforms, adopting a segment of one approach where they provide personalised offers based on customer needs and usage through platforms such as Just4U and Just4YouTown.The region also launched low-priced voice and data deals for elderly pensioners across the region.
Going beyond infrastructure investments, Vodacom looked at more ways to support digital inclusion across the region, pinpointing education as a priority. The pandemic laid bare the fact that too many learners are at a digital disadvantage. The digital divide between rural and urban areas needs to be closed if all students are to access their basic right to education on an equal footing. Expanding connectivity within rural areas goes a long way towards ensuring that learners within these communities can access online resources such as Vodacom’s zero-rated e-School platform. In this way, learners with devices can continue their education uninterrupted from home during school closures. To support this, Vodacom Central Region also provided 30 routers and 300 tablets to three Early Childhood Development centres and to connected learners in QwaQwa, and donated 200 laptops and computer centres to 40 schools across both provinces.
Connecting the unconnected is a goal Vodacom shares with the government, underpinning the importance of collaborative public-private-sector partnerships to further accelerate digital inclusion. “In a show of support, the Speaker of the National Assembly commended Vodacom on its work, citing it as an ‘excellent example of the private sector empowering people’, which is something we are honoured to be able to do,” adds Mthimunye. “Vodacom takes its social contract seriously and is committed to shaping a digital society that upholds equitable access for all.”