South Africans look for free mobile data to bridge digital divide

As local mobile operators see a significant increase in Internet traffic during the COVID-19 crisis, South Africans are increasingly looking for ways to get free mobile data.

South Africans look for free mobile data to bridge digital divide

This is according to a 2Q 2020 study conducted by mobile tech firm Upstream. The research gathered online data based on Upstream’s Zero-D mobile platform’s search functionality about users’ most frequently asked questions during April to June.

The mobile platform allows mobile network operators (MNO) to provide free access to essential online services for low-income consumers in emerging markets.

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According to the report, MNOs throughout SA and other emerging markets are continuing to experience an increase in the demand for Internet connectivity as the pandemic drives more people online.

The most asked question online during the research period was “How to get free data?” closely followed by “What is coronavirus?” and “When are schools opening?”

Lockdown, the re-opening of schools and coronavirus dominated online searches, while demand for games, music and video-streaming continues to boom, notes the report.

The term “e-school” also made the top 50 search queries for the first time, with more than 2 000 online searches logged throughout Q2, highlighting an emerging interest in remote online learning.

Education as a category accounted for more than 5% of total searches, while the fifth most-read article of the period was titled “Tips for online learning”.

Upstream believes MNOs can play an important role in bridging the digital divide in emerging markets such as SA.

“For millions of people in SA and other developing markets, topping up data isn’t something they are able to easily do during a pandemic,” says Kostas Kastanis, deputy CEO of Upstream.

“Either they can’t afford to, or they simply don’t have the means due to lockdown, shielding or other health concerns. In 2020, this means they’re missing out on all the benefits of connectivity, including important news, public health information and communication with friends and relatives.”

Health-related articles were the most popular category of news being visited online, accounting for 27.4% of all news content on the Zero-D mobile platform.

The increase in health-related articles demonstrates a huge spike in the demand for online health information, as prior to the pandemic, health-related news content accounted for only 5% of all articles visited.

The data gathered by Zero-D also highlights entertainment as the number one reason for South Africans heading online, accounting for 46% of all general online searches.

“Games”, “music” and “videos” occupied the top three keyword spots respectively, while “Uzalo”, a popular South African soap opera, ranked fourth, and “WhatsApp” ranked fifth, notes Upstream, which provides mobile Internet access to 1.2 billion consumers globally.

Community advocacy organisation has been running a campaign urging local telcos to provide low-income South African consumers with free monthly data, free SMSes, and to zero-rate all local news Web sites during the lockdown period.

In July, submitted over 500 000 signatures to local mobile network operators Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom, and has been pressurising them to help address SA’s digital divide, which has been amplified by the COVID-19 crisis in SA.

“It is worth bearing in mind that mobile operators are part of an industry that is benefiting quite substantially from this crisis, given the increased reliance on the Internet and other forms of communication technologies, particularly during the hard lockdown,” said Koketso Moeti, social activist and founder of, at the time.

Responding to’s call, the telcos told ITWeb at the time that they have made significant progress in reducing the cost to communicate and are committed to keeping South African citizens and communities connected during the lockdown, including having zero-rated a number of educational sites.

Originally published at IT web