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Broadband push can improve SA’s economic prospects

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 28 Sept 2020

Investing R500 million in broadband infrastructure has the potential to yield 4 300 direct and indirect jobs in South Africa.

This is according to analysis from Frost & Sullivan Africa, which looked at the positive impact of broadband investment on the country’s local economy.

Its study, says the company, focused on various segments in the socio-economic landscape that impact citizens and business: health, education, energy, water, manufacturing, tourism, agriculture, business services and public services.

The South African economy has been paralysed further by the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, with Statistics SA showing gross domestic product shrunk by just over 16% between the first and second quarters of 2020, giving an annualised growth rate of 51%. Projections indicate a further decline in employment numbers, with job losses possibly reaching one million in the second quarter of 2020.

In this climate, the research and analysis firm’s study points to the economic and social benefit that can be derived from broadband connectivity, noting it is not only essential to enable remote working.

According to Frost & Sullivan, broadband connectivity should increasingly be considered as part of delivering public services to communities.

“In order for citizens to take advantage of new technology platforms and solutions that can be provided, it is necessary to have sufficient connectivity,” it states. “There are major socio-economic benefits to broadband investment.

“New advancements in technology are also driving the need for connectivity to promote economic growth. With the fourth industrial revolution, we are witnessing increased adoption of technology in manufacturing, allowing greater control, real-time access/tracking to allow greater efficiency and minimise downtime, with predictive analysis.”

Connectivity as a utility

According to Frost, government and private sector digital response was a key factor in alleviating the impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

For example, independent school learners were supported through remote learning solutions, using tablets, smartphones or computers.

However, this required connectivity and brought about a disparity, especially in the public school sector, where the majority of learners did not have access to connectivity to allow implementation of a broader remote learning platform.

“This highlighted the inequality in the education system and presents an even greater argument that connectivity may be needed as a public service,” notes the study.

Turning to the healthcare sector, it notes that a significant amount of healthcare provision has moved online with the use of technology to mitigate the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The key learning from COVID-19 was that online heath screening and consultations limit the spread of infectious disease, also allowing rural communities access to equal healthcare as those in urban areas.

“Better connectivity allows more success in using contact screening technology, whereas dissemination of information to the connected citizen allows a greater ability to be informed and protect oneself from infection.”

Broadband for the people

To meet the technology goals of the National Development Plan, government established its ambitious national broadband project, SA Connect.

In terms of the connectivity project, the state aims to bridge broadband connectivity gaps and deliver widespread broadband access to the country's population by 2030.

Due to the magnitude of the project, government determined it should be implemented in two stages. In terms of phase one, the project aims to connect all schools, health facilities, government offices, Thusong Centres and post offices, in eight rural district municipalities, to broadband services.

Progress with the first phase of the big broadband push, however, was characterised by various uncoordinated initiatives.

As a result, local research firm BMIT is now conducting a feasibility study for the next phase of the broadband project.

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), which is overseeing the broadband project, first noted the feasibility study last year, saying it was working with the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), to determine the best way to move forward with the project.

In the request for proposal for a service provider to carry out the study, the DBSA outlines that SA Connect has, to date, been funded through the medium-term expenditure framework budget. It commenced with the connection of approximately 970 facilities considered to be phase one of the programme.

The DCDT applied for additional funding through National Treasury’s newly launched Budget Facility for Infrastructure (BFI) for the remainder of the broadband connections − phase two − which will expand connectivity to approximately 42 000 identified government facilities countrywide.

In considering the department’s application, the BFI recommended that a comprehensive feasibility study be conducted to determine the viability of phase two and the implementation thereof.