R6bn SITA project to bulk up govt’s lacklustre broadband push

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 18 May 2023
Mondli Gungubele, minister in the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.
Mondli Gungubele, minister in the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.

The State IT Agency (SITA) will be tasked with rolling out a national broadband project worth at least R6 billion, said communications minister Mondli Gungubele yesterday.

Government also plans to deploy close to 10 000 WiFi hotspots to boost connectivity across the country.

According to the minister, these moves will complement government’s ambitious SA Connect broadband project.

Gungubele yesterday delivered the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies’ (DCDT’s) 2023/2024 budget vote against the backdrop of World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, which is observed annually on 17 May.

He told members of Parliament (MPs) that the SITA-led project will be awarded per region and “ensure government reduces the cost and duplication” of connectivity infrastructure from municipalities up to national government level.

“This project must also ensure designated groups, such as enterprises owned by women and youth, are empowered with at least 40% value of this project, while creating opportunities for innovative locally-developed solutions to find traction in our market,” he said.

In the making since 2013, SA Connect is the national broadband programme initiated by government to ensure universal access to broadband services for all South Africans, initially prioritising rural and underserviced areas.

Due to the magnitude of the project, the state determined it should be implemented in two stages.

In phase one, it aimed to connect schools, health facilities, government offices, Thusong Service Centres and post offices, in eight rural district municipalities, to broadband services. During this phase, about 970 government facilities have been connected to broadband.

SA Connect phase two was approved by Cabinet in January last year; however, its implementation has faltered.

At the time, a Cabinet statement indicated the next phase of the broadband project would be rolled out by the department’s entities – SITA, Broadband Infraco (BBI) and Sentech – and the industry.

Gungubele assured MPs yesterday that his department is committed to realising the president’s vision of providing affordable high-speed internet access, through various programmes and legislative interventions.

Further highlighting the DCDT’s connectivity ambitions, he said the department is dedicated to bridging the digital divide by providing WiFi access through SA Connect to communities and ensuring universal access to the internet.

“This year, we plan todeploy 9 900 hotspots in 16 districts across the country. We aim to reach 80%connectivity by 2024. To fund this project, we have allocated R1.3 billion.

“In the previous financial year, the department was successful in maintaining its 970 connected sites. In addition, during that period, SITA connected 781 government sites in Eastern Cape, while BBI connected 110 USAASA [Universal Service and Access Agency of SA] sites.

“Our aim is to enhance connectivity to government facilities, such as schools, health facilities and government offices, with high-speed internet access, which enables them to serve as connectivity hubs for their users and surrounding communities.”

Commenting on policy, Gungubele said it is imperative to provide certainty that will allow growth of the digital economy. “As such, we must shift from the traditional one-size-fits-all regulations that sometimes inhibit innovations, global competitiveness and deny agility to new entrants and small enterprises.

“Our philosophy should be to implement smarter policies and regulations that will significantly increase the sector’s growth, while protecting the nation’s digital sovereignty.”

For the 2023/24 financial year, the minister said the total budget for the DCDT is R3.5 billion, of which R1.6 billion is for transfers and subsidies for ICT enterprise development and state-owned enterprise oversight.

“The department will use its budget to bridge the digital divide and build an inclusive digital economy,” he concluded.