Stalled ICT projects await the next administration

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
Johannesburg, 08 May 2019

South Africans are today voting to elect the leadership of the sixth administration, which will usher in the country's next president, a new national executive and government departments.

Over the years, the outgoing administration has been characterised by poor governance, poor service delivery, leadership ills, failure to deliver, as well as links to corruption and state capture.

In ICT, for example, government departments and agencies have proposed and subsequently poured billions of rands into a few projects but to no avail. Some of these projects include SA Connect, digital migration, set-top box (STB) production, as well as the drawn-out process to craft the spectrum allocation policy, to name but a few.

With the appointment of president Cyril Ramaphosa and utterances made thereafter, it seemed government was finally turning a new leaf, realising the importance of ICT and innovation as key elements for the country's economic growth and to address poverty, unemployment and inequality.

State officials, including Ramaphosa, have expressed desire to see ICT become an integral part of the country's education system, as well as help bridge the digital divide among South African citizens.

Despite the president's charm offensive to convince citizens and the industry of "a new dawn", implementing some of these high-priority ICT projects has continued to be on the backburner. For example, spectrum allocation.

Spectrum crumble

Mobile operators have for years been pleading for more spectrum in order to provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services.

When Ramaphosa delivered his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2018, he promised swift action in regards to allocation of high-demand radio spectrum. This year, he went as far as to vow that communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams would "shortly be issuing policy direction" to the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) for the licensing of spectrum.

The president's pronouncements were echoed by finance minister Tito Mboweni in his budget speech, with Ndabeni-Abrahams declaring the release of spectrum a matter of high priority. She went on to confirm the end of April as the date when the framework to license spectrum would be published.

However, any hope of swift action in terms of the final policy directive on spectrum allocation was dashed by the communications minister's decision to hold back on the release of the finalised framework.

The statement from the Department of Communications (DOC) failed to divulge the reason behind Ndabeni-Abrahams's decision, but stated: "Following extensive consultations in this regard, the minister deems it necessary to hold the policy direction on unassigned high-demand spectrum in abeyance for consideration in the sixth administration."

SA Connect

SA Connect is government's ambitious project, which aims to deliver widespread broadband access to 90% of the country's population by 2020, and 100% by 2030.

The project, identified by government as a tool to meet the technology goals of the National Development Plan (NDP), was first announced in 2013. 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.

In terms of phase one, Connect SA aims to connect all schools, health facilities, government offices, Thusong Centres and post offices, in eight rural district municipalities, to broadband services.

However, progress with the big broadband push has been limited and characterised by various uncoordinated initiatives.

In the Estimates of National Expenditure document released by National Treasury, the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) indicated its new implementation model for SA Connect will result in the provision of broadband services to 970 government sites by the 2021/2022 financial year.

This, according to the DTPS, forms part of ensuring phase one of the broadband policy is realised.

It explained that a new delivery model was developed in 2017 in collaboration with the State IT Agency (SITA) and Broadband Infraco.

"Over the medium-term, SITA will focus on connecting government as part of the SA Connect broadband policy, and addressing long-standing service delivery and internal inefficiency challenges by implementing revised business and operating models.

"This will be done in the context of the agency being repositioned by the DTPS to provide services to government in a reliable, efficient and cost-effective manner."

The long migration road

South Africa's road to digital migration has been one bumpy ride, characterised by miniscule progress, legal battles over the standards of STBs, bribery and corruption allegations, as well as party politics.

Further, the DOC, the custodian of the country's digital migration process, has undergone numerous leadership changes, with five different ministers in the space of two years.

In 2006, SA, along with other countries, committed to the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU's) June 2015 deadline for all countries to switch from analogue to DTT. The ITU has called on nations to migrate to digital to allow radio frequency spectrum to be freed up for mobile broadband services.

After missing the ITU's deadline, South Africa is now playing catch-up.

A recent response to a parliamentary question revealed 25 000 low-income households in the Northern Cape have migrated from the analogue broadcasting system to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

The DOC has prioritised registration and installation of STBs in border-lying areas across the country. These include the Square Kilometre Array area in the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga, Free State and Limpopo, where analogue causes the greatest interference.

The Free State, which was earmarked to migrate to DTT by 31 December 2018, is still in the process of moving to digital TV services.

In April, deputy communications minister Pinky Kekana led a two-day inspection visit to identify and resolve any possible challenges in the implementation of the BDM programme in the Free State.

In the region, over 75% of households have registered for free STBs, the department's spokesperson previously revealed.

The DOC has set itself a deadline of July 2020 to complete SA's analogue switch-off.

Readying future workforce

During this year's SONA, Ramaphosa revealed government will equip every school child with digital workbooks and textbooks on a tablet device over the next six years.

He explained this is part of the process to prepare the country's youth for the digital age. As a result, the state has prioritised education and the development of skills that are needed now and into the future.

While government efforts to improve SA's education system are commendable, such initiatives are often hampered. Government has a long history of technology projects that have fallen by the wayside.

For example, the Gauteng Online project, whose aim was to supply tablets and connectivity to over 2 000 public schools in the province, regularly came under fire for being ineffective.

There is also the issue of combatting theft of these devices.

At provincial level, the Gauteng Department of Education is championing the paperless classroom initiative, which sees classrooms connected to high-speed broadband and equipped with interactive smart boards. Teachers receive laptops and tablets for learners. Despite making strides in advancing ICT adoption in schools, the department continues to deal with theft incidents.

Ramaphosa has dedicated attention to Industry 4.0 and ensuring young people have the necessary digital skills, but only time will tell if his aspirations will be met by the next administration.