What's in store for ICT in 2017 SONA

President Jacob Zuma will deliver the State of the Nation Address this evening.
Read time 5min 40sec
President Jacob Zuma will deliver the State of the Nation Address this evening.

As president Jacob Zuma prepares to deliver his State of the Nation Address (SONA) this evening, ICT stakeholders wait in anticipation to see if the industry will be skimmed over yet again.

Over the last few years, the president's annual speech has overlooked the ICT industry, choosing to focus on other issues.

"We all are eagerly awaiting what the president has to say, and we can only hope ICT would not be left on the side-lines as its importance in today's economy can't be over-emphasised," says George Kalebaila, IDC director for telecoms, media and Internet of things in Africa.

Richard Hurst, director of enterprise research at Africa Analysis, says he doesn't expect that ICT will be a major issue in this year's SONA, much like last year.

"I think we can expect to see a passing mention given to ICT, and only where it shines a positive light on the current administration."

He explains: "As South Africans, we are well aware of the socio-economic issues but there is much to be done and these goals cannot be achieved in isolation. The government should look to ICT as an enabler of the economy and look at playing an enabling role in creating a more conducive environment for ICT and entrepreneurs to thrive. The implication of this approach is that the government could then use ICT to meet other socio-economic objectives."

The failure to mention ICT may serve to highlight a lack of understanding of the role ICT plays in the local economy, notes Hurst.

Setting priorities

Kalebaila agrees, saying while it is difficult to second-guess what the president will say in his SONA, from the ICT industry point of view, it will be important if the president would shine a spotlight on the sector.

He notes the SONA sets the tone for the priorities of government in the year and the mere mention of ICT by the president in his address is critical to energising the key stakeholders in industry and a call to action.

"With the ICT whitepaper under discussion, the president can provide more clarity on key issues, especially spectrum allocation and direct the minister of telecoms to further engage with all stakeholders to bring an end to the uncertainty that exists," says Kalebaila.

"While other socio-economic issues may seem more important because they deal with bread and butter issues, ICT is critical to driving the country into the digital economy and innovation that could unlock opportunities that may bring much-needed employment."

Naila Govan-Vassen, ICT senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan Africa, notes that although ICT can change the way government engages with its citizens and even save costs in the long run, ICT is not as yet a priority for national government, even though always mentioned during the speech.

She points out there is a lack of understanding in ICT potential and limited willingness to collaborate with the private stakeholders to improve the communications landscape.

Broadband ambitions

The analysts also think SA Connect - government's ambitious broadband project - will be mentioned in passing by the president.

SA Connect was given the green light by government in 2013. In the 2015 SONA, the president declared that year "the year of broadband" in the hope SA Connect would take off. However, it is still to deliver on its promise of connecting South Africans.

According to Kalebaila, SA Connect is in limbo and risks becoming a white elephant. Compared to the rapid investment and rollout of fixed broadband by the private sector, government's delay in implementing SA Connect validates calls to have the project be led by the private sector rather than the state.

"We would, therefore, expect the president to clarify government's position regarding this important project that seeks to bridge the digital divide, especially in rural communities. Improving broadband connectivity, especially in rural communities, should be a key area that the president should be touching on."

For Kalebaila, the industry needs government to show leadership to drive it to the next wave of development and the president would be well-advised to provide that initial push by re-focusing his administration to prioritise the ICT sector. The president would also be well-advised to encourage the speedy implementation of the digital migration programme which seems to be moving ever so slowly, he adds.

Govan-Vassen explains that during the 2015 SONA, Telkom was announced to be the lead agent for SA Connect; and in 2016, the tender for SA Connect was cancelled due to the lack of qualified participants. Thus, she believes it could be expected that the nation will hear about the progress with SA Connect, as this plan could be an answer to bridging the digital divide in the country.

"Clarifications around SA Connect and the respective broadband plan, around the Wireless Open Access Network highlighted in the ICT whitepaper, and speculations around the licensing of new spectrum, and spectrum owned by mobile operators are some of the topics that would be expected to be mentioned in the SONA," she says.

Another topic of national interest is the progress of digital migration and the possible plans for the lower band spectrum that is expected to be released, Govan-Vassen states.

However, she says although these are important topics that need to be addressed by the government, it is highly unlikely that any mention would be made beyond the nine-point plan.

Meanwhile, Hurst doubts any negative issues will be touched on and "it is likely that we will not see any mention of the SA Connect project".

Smooth sailing

Unlike in 2015 when signal jamming was used to censor coverage of SONA, deputy speaker of the National Assembly, Lechesa Tsenoli, has promised members of the media will not be restricted from doing their work.

That year, SA made international headlines for cellphone jamming which resulted in a delay in the start of Zuma's SONA.

"I want to assure members [of the media] - there will be no restrictions for members to do their work around Parliament. I assume that the status quo remains," Tsenoli says.

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
IT in government editor

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba is the IT in government editor at ITWeb. She reports on tech initiatives, policies and digital transformation strategies in government, banking and education. She holds an Honours degree in Journalism from Rhodes University. Behind that smile, she is plotting how best to get government officials to respond to her emails before deadline :)

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