Ramaphosa to expedite SA Connect in broadband push

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 07 Sept 2021
President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa wants SA Connect, the ambitious government broadband project, to be expedited in response to the growing need by South Africans to participate in the digital economy.

SA Connect, first announced in 2013, is the national broadband project identified by government to meet the National Development Plan’s technology goals of creating an inclusive information society. The project has been hampered by a series of delays over the years.

Speaking on the outcomes of an ANC national executive committee last night, the president was unequivocal that his government will see the project through.

“The increased role of digital platforms in our economic lives is expected to persist beyond the pandemic, as more and more social, economic, governance and supply chain interactions move to the digital sphere.

“Enabling universal access to broadband should be the approach to the release of the spectrum and other digital technologies so that the development of the digital economy is inclusive and sustainable. Government must find mechanisms to fast-track the SA Connect project in a cost-effective manner.”

At its 2013 launch, SA Connect was aimed at delivering widespread broadband access to 90% of the country's population by 2020, and 100% by 2030 by connecting all schools, health facilities, government offices, Thusong Centres and post offices.

Recalibrating the approach

Government has been mulling plans in the past year to develop new models to provide affordable, high-speed internet to low-income households.

Ramaphosa made the announcement in October last year, when he presented SA’s economic recovery plan in Parliament. The goal is to stimulate the economy post-COVID-19, after the deadly virus blow devastated the economy, causing massive job losses.

The latest Stats SA’s latest Labour Force Survey for the second quarter paints a grim picture of unemployment in the country – showing there were 7.8 million jobless South Africans in the second quarter, representing 34.4% of the population.

With SA’s unemployment rate now reportedly the highest in the world, Ramaphosa wants more people to participate in the ballooning digital economy.

Ramaphosa has as recently as June been urging the spectrum impasse in the country to be resolved, to allow communities access to affordable data.

Telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) was set to auction the long-awaited high-demand spectrum by 31 March 2021. However, it was dealt a blow when MTN, Telkom and Etv took the regulator to court, challenging some aspects of the auction process.

Bickering between ICASA and the operators escalated last week over mechanisms to keep internet access affordable during the pandemic.

The squabble stems from ICASA’s move to recover temporary radio frequency spectrum assigned to operators at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Last week, the regulator demanded the licensees return the temporary spectrum to the authority by no later than 30 November.

This solicited sharp response from the operators, which have largely used the temporary spectrum to launch 5G networks in SA’s cities, as well as cater for the increase in data demand as more people took to remote working and learning.

Top telcos Vodacom, MTN and Cell C have all decried the move, saying removing the temporary spectrum before ICASA completes the spectrum auction will have a significant impact on data supply to citizens.