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5.5m rural, township households to get WiFi, says minister

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 15 Feb 2024
Mondli Gungubele, minister of communications and digital technologies.
Mondli Gungubele, minister of communications and digital technologies.

The South African government has set a target of connecting 5.5 million households in townships and rural areas with WiFi.

The goal was revealed this week by MondliGungubele, minister of communications and digital technologies, addressing a joint debate on the State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Rural areas and townships across South Africa have historically been left unconnected, as telecommunications companies shun them because they are perceived to be not commercially viable.

During the SONA debate on Tuesday, Gungubele noted that “internet connectivity and penetration has improved greatly in the country”, from a mere 21.1% in 2011, to 79% in 2022, elevating citizens in a rapidly-changing world that is driven by digital technologies.

He said the improvement is due to work being done through the SA Connect broadband connectivity project, which is dedicated to bridging the digital divide by providing WiFi access to communities and ensuring universal access to the internet.

In the making since 2013, SA Connect is government’s national broadband project to ensure universal access to broadband services for all South Africans, prioritising rural and underserviced areas.

Phase one of SA Connect was aimed at connecting government facilities, with phase two of the project targeting provision of internet access on an ongoing basis.

Government launched phase two last year, with the aim to provide core and access network infrastructure, to enable broadband connectivity to community WiFi hotspots that will connect households.

Moving goal posts

In November, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) revised its target for phase two.

According to the Adjusted Estimates of National Expenditure (AENE) document, the DCDT is now looking to connect 882 000 households as part of the broadband plan in the 2023/24 financial year.

This is down from the projected target of 1.9 million households, as published in the 2023 Estimates of National Expenditure (ENE). The ENE revealed the department further targeted connecting 3.8 million households during the 2024/25 financial year.

The changed target for the 2023/24 financial year was attributed to delays in governance arrangements, reads the AENE. “This led to delays in the disbursement of funds and a reduction in the budget.”

The AENE is the document released to coincide with finance minister Enoch Godongwana’s 2023 Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement delivered in the National Assembly in November.

In his speech, Gungubele said government will continue to connect rural and township areas, with a target of 5.5 million households enabled by WiFi hotspots in the next three to four years.

In addition, he said government will connect 1.5 million households enabled by WiFi hotspots by December 2024, and 747 000 households enabled by 4 250 WiFi hotspots by the end of this financial year.

“We can report that to date, a coverage of 361 000 households which has been enabled by 2 502 WiFi hotspots has been achieved. The work has been done and will continue being done. It will involve 76 internet service providers, which are small, medium and micro enterprises. This will result in 4 500 direct jobs and many more indirect jobs and opportunities downstream,” Gungubele said.

Spectrum boon

With government having freed spectrum of above 700MHz for use by mobile operators, that spectrum will connect public institutions and deploy 4G and 5G technology throughout the country, he noted.

Government believes the availability of spectrum paves the way for affordable, high-speed internet access for all.

“Working with the private sector thus far, all eight metros have been connected to fibre, and we are expanding to more towns. We have, as part of our implementation of the recommendations of the presidential commission on fourth industrial revolution, embarked on several digital infrastructure projects to ensure transformation through access in a changing world,” the minister pointed out.

He said Cabinet approved the Next-Generation Spectrum Policy for economic development on 25 November 2023.

The policy intends to support the spectrum allocation and licensing for fixed mobile, broadcasting, aeronautical and marine, research and development, community access and other relevant industries.

It also seeks to promote equity and fair allocation to contribute towards the transformation of the sector and accessibility of digital connectivity even in outlying parts of the country.

The purpose of the policy is to address gaps and limitations that were identified in the 2016 National Information and Communications Technology White Paper and prepares for the amendment of relevant sections of the Electronic Communications Act, 2005 (Act 36 of 2005), which include:

  • Unclear roles and responsibilities between the minister and the authority (ICASA) which contributed to inefficiencies.
  • Gaps in the spectrum management regime.
  • An exclusive spectrum regime that benefits a few and bigger players.
  • Inefficiencies towards extending broadband access to rural, remote and underserved areas.

Promoting balance

“Working with our mobile operators, we will connect over 21 878 public basic education institutions, health centres and clinics, public libraries and offices/residences of traditional leaders to the internet, over the next three years.

“4G connection is expanding to township and rural areas under the democracy ka [meaning: of] Tata Rolihlahla Mandela. Information and communications technology is a great equaliser. Everyone in South Africa must and will access modern digital technologies.

“A digitally-disconnected SouthAfrica automatically removes itself from participating in the global communityof the future − the social and economic impact of which will be catastrophic,” concluded Gungubele.