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Govt looks to other means to implement broadband project

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 25 Jan 2017
SA Connect was adopted by Cabinet in 2013, but has yet to make any progress.
SA Connect was adopted by Cabinet in 2013, but has yet to make any progress.

The Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) is exploring alternative mechanisms of implementing phase one of SA Connect within the provisions of the law, says a spokesperson.

This statement follows the State IT Agency's (SITA's) decision to cancel the SA Connect tender late last year.

The DTPS has been charged with overseeing the national broadband project, while SITA was approached by the department to appoint a suitable service provider for phase one of SA Connect.

Up until now, the DTPS has remained mum on the impact the cancelled tender has had on the ambitious broadband plan.

Department spokesperson Siya Qoza says: "We are obviously disappointed that we could not find a preferred bidder through the open tender. Even after SITA had granted several extensions, none of those who submitted bids qualified.

"With the tender process having failed, we are now exploring alternative mechanisms of implementing phase one of South Africa Connect within the provisions of the law."

Up in the air

SA Connect is the national broadband policy adopted by Cabinet in 2013, and last December marked three years since the policy was published.

According to government, the project aims to meet the technology goals of the National Development Plan (NDP). As part of the NDP, government has undertaken to connect its offices across the country, starting in the rural areas, to ensure South Africans have access to the most modern communication tools and services.

SA Connect must come to fruition as SA's social and economic development depends on it, says the DA's Marian Shinn.
SA Connect must come to fruition as SA's social and economic development depends on it, says the DA's Marian Shinn.

Due to the magnitude of the project, government decided it should be implemented in two stages: phase one and phase two.

The first phase focuses on connecting all schools, health facilities, government offices, Thusong Centres and post offices in eight rural district municipalities to broadband services.

However, the process of implementing phase one has been dogged by issues such as lack of leadership, no clarity on the appointment of a lead agency, as well as sourcing alternative funds for the project.

Possibly, the biggest blow in the process to implement phase one of the broadband push was the unexpected cancellation of the tender for a service provider to see the project through.

Prior to the tender cancellation, DTPS minister Siyabonga Cwele had on numerous occasions noted the initial rollout of SA Connect hinged on SITA awarding the tender.

Last September, the minister said he hoped that month would mark the beginning of connecting the eight rural districts.

Early November, SITA CEO Setumo Mohapi said on the side-lines of the GovTech conference that the agency was in engagements with the bidders and would first formalise things before any kind of announcement is made.

SITA also revealed to ITWeb the names of the six companies that responded to the request for bids for the tender.

Subsequently, the agency published a cancellation of the tender on 18 November, in the Government Tender Bulletin.

According to the agency: "None of the six companies that responded to the bid had met all six technical mandatory requirements (bidders were expected to meet all six mandatory requirements) to enable them to proceed to the next phase of pricing evaluation."

Scrambling for answers

Despite the cloud of uncertainty that still hangs over the future of SA Connect, the ambitious broadband project must see the light of day.

This is the word from Democratic Alliance (DA) MP and shadow minister of telecommunications and postal services, Marian Shinn.

Shinn says the project has to be realised because SA's social and economic development depends on it.

"There are ambitious targets to be met within the next three years and these cannot be met if all the policy failures in the DTPS and the Department of Communications are not rapidly solved with the private sector."

She adds: "The delay in the rollout of digital terrestrial television hinders SA Connect and its need to use TV white spaces to reach rural areas; the seemingly corrupt set-top box procurement process, the unaffordability and technological obsolescence of much of the technology will not be resolved any time soon, irrespective of the outcome of the Constitutional Court decision."

Working together

Industry pundits previously noted SA Connect is the country's most significant telecommunications programme, and will have to involve private-public partnerships in order to really succeed.

Shinn agrees and says the minister needs to re-approach SA Connect with an open mind, realising that it is a mammoth project.

It needs the inclusion of the best ideas and skills in the ICT sector, goodwill, ingenuity, project-management smarts, and private sector ingenuity to come up with a variety of solutions, she states.

"Let the private sector collectively brainstorm solutions for the overall vision and then devise and implement them on a local, regional or provincial basis to suit specific needs.

"Fibre infrastructure cannot be the golden thread of SA Connect ? it's too expensive and, in some cases, unnecessary. These could be solutions based on wireless, WiFi, mesh networks, satellite broadband, copper, fibre or whatever ingenious solutions best suit geographic areas and citizens' needs."

"Spreading the implementation responsibility will ensure a more inclusive approach, create nationwide ownership and commitment to bridging the digital divide, and grow small-medium enterprise skills along with the opportunity to be part of a network of which we can all be proud," Shinn adds.

SA Connect aims to deliver 100% broadband connectivity for all schools, health and government facilities by 2020. It is also planned to deliver widespread broadband access to 90% of the country's population by 2020, and 100% by 2030.