The high cost of mobile communications and internet access is holding back development in urban townships. Furthermore, confusion over the cost of voice and data communications is causing cynicism and additional expense for households who are choosing to pay for internet access over essentials such as food.

These are the findings of a report released by the Right2Know Campaign in Johannesburg this morning; The Lived Cost of Communications: Experiencing the Lived Cost of Mobile Communications in Low and Very Low Income Households in South Africa 2014.

The research, which was undertaken by the LINK Centre at the University of Wits, and is based on household surveys in Soweto, Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha and suburbs around Durban where households survive on less than R6 400 per month and are spending up to R300 a month on phone charges, often a the expense of putting food on the table.

The reason they make that choice, is because phones and internet access are vital to economic participation.

“It’s not just about the right to communicate,” says report co-author Luci Abrahams, “It’s about the right to be part of the digital economy. That’s what we’re talking about. We were excluded from the economy for centuries, and today people from low income households are excluded from digital economy.”

Abahams said that internet usage was becoming necessary in areas which might surprise some. In Khayelitsha, she explained, she found a group of waste pickers who were part of a global organisation, Groundwork, organised over the internet.

“The waste picker story is one of the most fascinating stories,” she explains, “They travel throughout the suburbs of South Africa picking up glass, plastics for recycling. This isn’t unemployed people going through bins, it’s a highly organised venture. The people we spoke to in Kyaletsha are part of a South African organisation and a global one. They’re organising to buy land collectively to store waste on and better manage prices.”

One of the waste pickers interviewed explained that the cost of communications was proving a stumbling block.

“I have a lot of paperwork that we sometimes have to email or scan if we have to send them to Groundwork and SA Waste Pickers Association in Joburg,” he said, “At a library the internet is either slow or offline, if I go to an internet cafe I have to pay R9 a page.”

Abrahams said that the respondents to the survey overwhelmingly rejected the current offers of “free internet”, because of service limitations that often made it impractical to use. Night-time bundles, offering extra access after midnight, were particularly unpopular.

“There’s frustration with [affordable] airtime vouchers,” Abrhams said, “Because of limits on usage, like you have to use 1GB of data in 24 hours. People feel that it’s your R10 but you are being told how to use it.”

In the words of one respondent: “When you buy R10 airtime, then get R70, when it finishes it all finishes so you don’t even know where your [paid for] airtime has gone… [when it’s gone by] midnight, airtime is like Cinderella’s pumpkin.”

In total, 79 households took part in the survey, and Abrahams says that future research should investigate similar criteria in poor rural areas.

R2K is using the research to launch a separate book called Alternatives to Privatised Telecommunications, which looks at areas from Europe to South America where internet expansion has been made affordable using mechanisms outside of the private sector. Examples include government backed fibre in New Zealand, Uruguay and Sweden, but the most applicable model for South Africa, the campaign says, is the co-operative movements of First Nation groups in Canada.

There are broad similarities between native America reservations and South African townships, R2K says, which suggest a model of building networks in poor, marginalised areas that is more democratic.

“The Kukenah Network begain in 1995 as a community-based project of the Keewaytinook Okimkanak Tribal Council, representing six First Nations communities,” the report says, “K-Net immediately implemented a joint ownership structure whereby individual communities own local loops and last mile infrastructures, while a cooperative of the involved communities jointly own and control the wider network.”

Because the network is run as a non-profit, its aim is to build a community resource that’s affordable.

R2K organiser Mark Weinberg says that the model is particularly appealing.

“[It’s a] bottom up approach, more democratic one than the top down one,” Weinberg says, “None of us are fans of nationalisation with the current administration, but this research lays the groundwork for a more democratic approach.”

Weinberg says that instead of looking at “last mile” solutions for broadband, South African communities should look at “first mile”, community-owned options such as mesh networks which are locally owned and operated by the poor who will use them.”

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.