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Broadband must change how we live

If not, says Telkom's head strategist, we may as well stop speaking about ubiquitous broadband.

Broadband must benefit the poor and promote omnipresent services – not fibre to the home – says Telkom strategy head Miriam Altman.

Broadband must benefit the poor and promote omnipresent services – not fibre to the home – says Telkom strategy head Miriam Altman.

Broadband dispersion in SA is not just about laying pipes in the ground and bringing fibre to homes; it is about connecting South Africans and changing the way we live and work.

This is according to Telkom's recently appointed head of strategy, Miriam Altman, speaking at this year's broadband-focused Southern Africa Telecommunications Networks and Applications Conference.

Altman says, if broadband is to make a tangible socio-economic difference in SA, it needs to be focused on more than just the metropolis that has long been favoured – it needs to reach remote communities and poverty lines where people would benefit at a basic services level from being online.

"[Broadband] is not just for those living in Sandton or the reasonably well off – which if we are honest is only the top 5% in the country – it is about getting basic [health and education] services to people and getting people online to sell their services and access information. Blood runs through all our veins – whether you live under a bridge or live in Bryanston."

An economist and one of the 25 commissioners on government's National Planning Commission (NPC), Altman says if broadband does not reduce the digital chasm in a middle-income country like SA, further discussions on broadband rollout are futile. "You have to think: ‘does broadband reduce or entrench the inequality we see in SA?'"

The NPC's growth plan for SA proposes less state intervention in the ICT space, a common carrier network, and open-access policies to encourage sharing of the backbone fibre network, without discouraging private long-term investment.

Appointed by president Jacob Zuma in May 2010, the commission aims to trim unemployment and spur economic growth. Its final National Development Plan says an immediate policy goal is to ensure national ICT structures adequately support the needs of the economy, allowing for parties beyond the public sector to participate.

Poverty pick up

Altman says broadband could realistically be one of the most transformative means of improving the lives of South Africans, most of whom are living from financial crisis to financial crisis.

"Most people are under the poverty line and are just moving from crisis to crisis – and no economy can grow on a sustained basis in that context." She says this creates a critical need to stabilise peoples' lives – and one way of achieving this is to reduce the cost of living, which in turn can be done by taking public services to people.

With many South Africans living far from commercial centres and being marginalised from services, Altman says broadband could be a key means of getting critical services to them. "Broadband is a key transformative service – particularly for a place like SA.

"Of course, the best solution would be to have services everywhere – but in the meantime broadband is a fantastic means of uplifting lives. If public services could take advantage of it, the poor could sell their goods and do basic things like get diagnosed."

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