Govt entices new telco players

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 01 Sept 2022
Philly Mapulane, deputy minister of communications and digital technologies.
Philly Mapulane, deputy minister of communications and digital technologies.

Government is stepping up its efforts to connect 80% of South Africans in three years, and wants more service providers to join the telecoms sector.

Philly Mapulane, deputy communications and digital technologies minister, shared insights into government’s connectivity plans at this year’s Southern Africa Telecommunication Networks and Applications Conference (SATNAC) in George.

He detailed government’s roadmap on bridging the gap of digital inclusion, 5G, spectrum, as well as the importance of digital solutions in tackling SA’s societal challenges. Mapulane also called for the alignment of government and the telecoms industry on critical national projects.

In his speech, Mapulane said as government is rolling out the second phase of SA Connect, it has now partnered with the mobile operators, which will also participate in the rolling out of broadband infrastructure to connect communities.

Launched in 2013, SA Connect is a critical national broadband rollout project to help the country meet the technology goals of the National Development Plan of creating an inclusive information society.

“The plan is that in the next three years, we would like to connect about 80% of South Africans, even those that are in the far-flung areas of our country. We would like them to be connected to the network through the deployment of various means – satellite, broadband and other means.

“So, Cabinet has approved that we must implement phase two [of SA Connect]; we are in the process of engaging with Treasury to make money available,” said Mapulane.

“We are bringing a new policy on spectrum going forward, which is intended to, among others, transform the landscape, because, as you know, we have got very few operators. In fact, other people are calling it a duopoly. We would like to think there is space for other people to come and operate, but that will, of course, be informed by the policy discussions.”

Turning to the contentious spectrum issue, Mapulane explained why the allocation took more than a decade to happen. He said the litigations were one of the biggest reasons for the delays, but government was happy the process was finally put to bed.

Pricey spectrum

Conference host Serame Taukobong, Telkom Group CEO, also commented on the spectrum, saying: “Policy plays an important role. If you look at the auction process that happened now, it's almost 10 years late.

“So, how do we make sure that we catch up? It's not just about the spectrum, it’s the entire ecosystem. Power is a big issue for us right now; how do we make sure that the policy accounts for these things?

“At the end of the day, we are businesses, we need to earn money and make money for our shareholders. Obscene spectrum auctions and pricing is not going to help make the rollout of 5G any easier, so that is quite critical.

“It's not just hey, here's the spectrum − off you go. And you go off and pay R4 billion or R5 billion for that. It's about a return on investment in that regard and you also can’t have licence obligations that make it impossible to even activate that spectrum. So, it's that alignment with policy that makes it vital to take the industry forward.”

Taukobong’s comments come on the back of the recently concluded spectrum auction that saw government net over R14 billion − a much higher amount than the R8 billion initially projected.