What the ICT sector wants to hear from #SONA2019

Read time 7min 40sec
President Cyril Ramaphosa and communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams pictured at the World Economic Forum last month. (Photo source: Twitter)
President Cyril Ramaphosa and communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams pictured at the World Economic Forum last month. (Photo source: Twitter)

While scores of South Africans wait in anticipation for president Cyril Ramaphosa's State of the Nation Address (SONA), ICT stakeholders hope for clarity on spectrum allocation, policy direction, upskilling youth and workers, and a unified communications ministry.

SONA, which takes place tonight at 7pm, is the annual event that sees the president take stock of the achievements over the last year and outline plans for the coming year.

Ramaphosa, unlike his predecessor Jacob Zuma, has given the ICT industry some much-needed attention, highlighting the potential of the sector in social and economic development.

Last year, the president announced plans to establish an ICT commission, a move industry pundits described as a sign government is taking steps to ensure capabilities in science, technology and innovation are developed.

Furthermore, he promised to initiate a process to accelerate the licensing of high-demand radio spectrum. To back up the president's commitment, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) announced, last October, plans to license spectrum "by no later than the end of March 2019".

In November, Ramaphosa capped off his first nine months in office with a move labelled as his "best one yet", consolidating the telecommunications and postal services and communications departments. Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams was appointed to head up the single communications ministry.

It is on the back of these pronouncements that the ICT sector has expressed hopes and advice in regards to the areas they believe Ramaphosa should turn his focus.

Spectrum expectations

Specifically, IDC associate vice-president for Sub-Saharan Africa Mark Walker notes sorting out spectrum allocation as key to tonight's address.

Mobile operators have been clamouring for spectrum for the last few years, as they need it to provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services.

"Cyril Ramaphosa is certainly more economically astute and, based on recent re-arrangement of the Department of Communications (DOC) and the appointment of a younger minister, who has academic background in telecoms, seems to be in tune with the benefits that ICT can bring."

Walker hopes the president's speech will touch on creating a free market in terms of less restrictive requirements for businesses operating in the ICT sector, as well adding incentives for ICT innovation by making the ICT SME and start-up environment more attractive as investment areas.

Addressing the issues around the wholesale open access network should also be a priority, he notes.

Marian Shinn is an MP and DA shadow minister of telecoms and postal service.
Marian Shinn is an MP and DA shadow minister of telecoms and postal service.

Marian Shinn, Democratic Alliance MP and telecoms and postal services shadow minister, shares similar views, urging the release of high-demand spectrum for auction.

Shinn explains this can be done in tranches to enable smaller players to bid, either in consortia of their own composition or individually, alongside the large mobile network operators in line with aspects of the compromise they proposed two years ago.

To her list of outlooks, she adds: "Withdrawal of the Electronic Communications Amendment (ECA) Bill, the formalisation of the Chapter 9 independence of ICASA and a commitment to properly resource it with skills and money to fulfil its mandate, a fast-track action plan for broadcasting digital migration and an enquiry into the validity of a public broadcaster in the era of converged telecommunications."

Independent analyst and researcher Charley Lewis also wants an update on the promised high-demand spectrum allocation. "ICASA is independent and this is their process, but they are guided by national policy, and access to spectrum really does need to be fast-tracked."

Independent analyst Charley Lewis.
Independent analyst Charley Lewis.

Defined roles

Lewis says the president needs to make a firm commitment in respect of the central role of ICT as a key economic enabler and on progress towards an information society and knowledge economy.

The ICT sector is at the forefront of government's economic stimulus and recovery plan. Last year, Ramaphosa revealed his administration is determined to make the sector an integral part of the investment drive to attract R100 billion in new investment to the country over the next five years.

Lewis points out there needs to be greater clarity on the planned union of the departments of telecoms and postal services and communications into a new-look DOC, and on whether any additional departments are to be brought under the same umbrella.

"Given the nature of the sector as a complex, converged ICT ecosystem, and pervasive enabling function of ICT across the economy, active consideration should be given to the establishment of an inter-ministerial cluster, bringing together those functionalities where ICT is most central: basic and higher education, science and technology, trade and industry.

"The president surely needs to revisit the policy and legislative programme for the sector, where the recommendations of the integrated ICT Policy Review Panel were cut short by the exclusion of audio-visual services and content from the ensuing white paper. It is surely necessary, given the wasted years inflicted on the sector by a divided ministerial structure, to revisit and update the white paper, perhaps on the basis of updated advice from the panel.

"The legislative programme of the departments is now in some disarray, and needs to be revised and streamlined."

Echoing Shinn's observation, Lewis notes the ECA Bill has floundered and should be withdrawn. "Likewise, the introduction of a new economic regulator should be abandoned in favour of strengthening and properly resourcing ICASA. On the other hand, legislation to dissolve USAASA and establish a wider Digital Development Fund with proper governance, accountability and transparency providers needs to be prioritised."

Frost & Sullivan research analyst George Etheredge believes what is more important than what Ramaphosa says in his SONA, is an indication that action is being taken on some of the ICT-related promises that have already been made.

"In 2018's SONA, Ramaphosa committed to set up a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission. As of January 2019, this still had not happened - and setting up the commission should be the easy part. It does not matter what the president says if no action is taken."

Lewis is also of the view that there needs to be a clear timeline as to when the process to set up the digital commission will be completed.

Mark Walker, IDC's associate VP for Sub-Saharan Africa.
Mark Walker, IDC's associate VP for Sub-Saharan Africa.

Advice for the president

Ahead of tonight's address, Etheredge points out that although the president has noted he believes ICT and innovation to be crucial to the South African economy going forward; a key challenge will be ensuring SA's population is equipped with the skills to contribute in a digitalised economy.

Therefore, it is of paramount importance to develop the requisite skills going forward. "Failure to develop these skills in the population at large will exclude the majority of South Africans from being able to contribute to a digital economy and perpetuate already severe inequalities."

Shinn advises Ramaphosa to assure all players in the sector that they are not the enemy, that their role in the economic and social development of the country will be acknowledged as critical, and that government recognises the need for light-touch regulation to enable it to respond to the dynamic needs and opportunities the technology brings to the nation's development as an ICT powerhouse.

"He must also assure them that their investments and intellectual property in SA will be constitutionally protected. Government must incentivise innovation in product and service development, skills imports and knowledge exchange, and look to minimise the impact of duties on imported electronic products and components to contribute to lowering the costs of communication and facilitating widespread inclusion of all South Africans in the worldwide information society."

Walker also gives a nod to getting rid of artificial constraints to doing business in SA. "The country was leading in ICT across all metrics 10 years ago; now Kenya and other countries are far more attractive ICT-wise in terms of innovation, application and investment in ICT."

In addition, projects that improve government delivery to citizens and business, and encourage transparency and accountability of public officials should be prioritised, he states.

Lewis concludes: "The priority needs to be bringing policy, legislation and regulation for the broad sector back on track. Secondly, the focus needs to be on concrete action in moving forward with the key projects and interventions that will both make immediate impact and produce medium-term benefit."

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