SA Connect: ‘One step forward, two steps back’

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 10 Oct 2019

The communications and digital technologies ministry is going back to the drawing board, looking for best practices to implement phase two of the ambitious government broadband project, SA Connect.

This as phase one of the project has been plagued by years-long delays and characterised by various uncoordinated initiatives.

In 2015, then-president Jacob Zuma proclaimed that year as “the year of broadband” in the hope that phase one of SA Connect, which aims to deliver universal broadband access, will take off.

In terms of phase one, the state is looking to connect all schools, health facilities, government offices, Thusong Centres and post offices, in eight rural district municipalities, to broadband services.

However, four years after Zuma’s announcement, the full implementation of this first stage of the project has been found wanting.

Helping hand

To avoid the same hiccups experienced during the first phase of SA Connect, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) reveals the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) is helping to determine the best way forward for the next phase.

The DCDT says “with regards to phase two, the DBSA is assisting the department with facilitating a feasibility study which will explore various cost-effective and efficient implementation models, as well as sustainable funding models”.

It is unknown whether the department, under the leadership of former minister Siyabonga Cwele, conducted a feasibility study for phase one, which is still in the implementation stage.

For World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck, this latest move sounds like one step forward, two steps back.

But that is the nature of the recent history of broadband plans in South Africa, says Goldstuck.

“When you have 10 ministers in 10 years, it can be expected that a new incumbent would want to follow due diligence.

“However, the sense of urgency we hear of in the Department of Communications is at odds with the constant need to go back to the drawing board. Going back to the feasibility stage when implementation is already under way is a recipe for more delays, confusion and excuses.”

Independent analyst and researcher Dr Charley Lewis is unsure about the expertise the DBSA has in this area.

“It needs an in-depth knowledge of universal access service initiatives around the world, and the successes and failures.

“And it’s also important that DTPS [DCDT] should not see itself as an implementing agency – that’s the job of the private sector, with the appropriate regulatory incentives for market-led rollout, coupled with support from the USAF [Universal Service and Access Fund], either in the form of once-off smart initiation subsidies or through long-term support programmes for those areas and individuals the market is unable to reach.

“If you get those areas right, the business models will follow.”

Lewis adds it’s not only about supplying broadband but also a demand issue. “There needs to be content that will appeal to the citizens… to ensure stimulating demand.”

SOEs to the rescue

While the ministry was still known as telecommunications and postal services, in 2017, it developed a new delivery model for SA Connect in collaboration with the State IT Agency (SITA), Broadband Infraco, other state-owned entities and private sector players.

This was the result of SITA cancelling the SA Connect tender in search for a service provider to implement phase one.

At the time, the agency said: “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.”

Implementation via the new model commenced in 2018/2019, says the DCDT.

Due to budget constraints, the scope for phase one has been adjusted to now connect 970 government facilities, according to the communications ministry. 

“As at the end of September 2019, 551 of the 970 government facilities have been connected; and these are mainly schools and health facilities.

“It is worth noting that work is under way on the remaining facilities and these will be completed by the end of the 2019/20 financial year.”

Advising government on how to speed up rollout of SA Connect, Goldstuck says: “Stop messing around and get down to business, rather than talking about getting down to business and developing documents about getting down to business.”

SA Connect timeline

  • In 2013, government's long-awaited broadband policy, SA Connect, is given the green light.
  • In 2014, former communications minister Yunus Carrim appoints the National Broadband Advisory Council, consisting of independent technical experts and representatives of business, trade unions and civil society, to advise him on the implementation of SA Connect.
  • In 2015, Telkom is announced as the lead agency for the ambitious broadband project, a move pundits described as uncompetitive.
  • During the 2016 SONA, there was still no real progress in regards to the broadband project, with Zuma only saying government will "fast-track the implementation of the first phase of the national broadband plan".
  • ITWeb revealed in November 2016 that six companies were in the running for the tender to rollout the country's broadband project. The tender was cancelled a week later.
  • In the 2017 budget speech, former finance minister Pravin Gordhan earmarked R1.9 billion over the medium-term for broadband implementation.
  • Delivering the DTPS budget vote in May 2018, Cwele said government was targeting to connect 570 sites by the end of the year, with plans to connect 327 sites by the end of June 2018.
  • In July 2018, the department confirmed it had missed its target to bring 327 sites online, and only 187 were connected at that time.
  • In January, DCDT minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams kick-started its process to rollout broadband services in Limpopo's Vhembe district.
  • In July, appearing before Parliament’s Select Committee on Public Enterprises and Communications, officials said the department is exploring partnerships with private sector players to provide 100% universal accessible broadband connectivity.