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End of the road for USAASA

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The DTPS will be responsible for formulating policy approaches to universal service and access communications, says minister Siyabonga Cwele.
The DTPS will be responsible for formulating policy approaches to universal service and access communications, says minister Siyabonga Cwele.

The embattled Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (USAASA) will be dismantled and its functions transferred to the telecommunications department.

This was revealed by telecommunications and postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele, as he unpacked the new ICT policy white paper during a media briefing in Pretoria on Sunday.

Last week, Cabinet finally approved the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper, which has been three years in the making. The new policy replaces the separate white papers on telecommunication (1996) and postal services (1998).

At the briefing yesterday, Cwele said the new policy will be a key framework to help government achieve its objectives of bridging the digital divide.

The ICT policy recommends USAASA be dissolved and the existing Universal Service and Access Fund be transformed into a standalone funding agency to support universal service and access.

This move is said to be in line with government's commitment to streamline the roles and responsibilities of different entities to increase efficiency and public value of public resources.

USAASA will be transformed to a more effective instrument of ensuring government implements its universal service obligation, said Cwele.

He explained: "In line with this, the minister is responsible for formulating policy approaches to universal service and access. All policy-related functions currently residing with the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA will be transferred to the minister.

"Regulatory functions such as licence conditions to advance universal service and access and monitoring of rollout of networks currently residing with USAASA will be transferred to the regulator."

Troubled past

Over the years, USAASA, which was set up as government's way of bridging the digital divide, has had to fend off allegations of serious maladministration, unlawful conduct and unlawful expenditure.

Government established USAASA under the Electronic Communications Act to promote the goals of universal access and universal service in the under-serviced areas of SA.

The agency is also in charge of overseeing SA's multibillion-rand digital TV set-top box (STB) rollout, a project which has also been shrouded in controversy.

Most recently, a National Treasury forensic investigation report found USAASA's tender process for STBs for the digital migration project lacked integrity and was not one of value for money.

Change it up

Cwele said the Universal Service and Access Fund (USAF) will be replaced by the Digital Development Fund (Digital-DF).

The Digital-DF will focus on the extension of infrastructure, end-user and equipment subsidies, supporting digital literacy and skill development, to extend access to digital government services, and support for innovative use by small, medium and micro-sized enterprises, he stated.

The Digital-DF will be a distinct fund established by and accountable to the DTPS minister.

"The primary focus of the Digital-DF will be universal access projects. However, the fund will also provide universal service subsidies for members of identified segments of society," according to the ICT policy white paper.

The fund will also aim to ensure accountability to the public and funders will be paramount in finalising the governance arrangements and structure of the Digital-DF. The new entity will be required to provide a detailed annual narrative and audited financial reports.

"Mechanisms will be put in place to ensure efficient management of the fund and limit the amount spent on administration of the fund, while ensuring effective monitoring of use."

With the new fund, government envisages people in the private sector will also play a part together with the minister of finance to manage public finances and ensure there is no duplication, Cwele concluded.

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