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Minister touts SA Connect as enabler of digital inclusion

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On World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD), communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has stressed SA’s need to prioritise the implementation of its broadband plan, SA Connect.

This, as the COVID-19 crisis has hastened the need for affordable Internet access for all to bridge the digital divide.

Ndabeni-Abrahams was speaking on the occasion of WTISDin Bethlehem in the Free State this morning. She marked the occasion by switching off analogue television broadcast services in Bethlehem.

World Telecommunication Day is celebrated annually on 17 May since 1969, marking the founding of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the signing of the first International Telegraph Convention in 1865.

Held under the theme: “Accelerating digital transformation in challenging times”, this year’s WTISD 2021 emphasises the key role of telecoms and ICT in building social resilience, with ITU membership stepping up to help save lives and sustain economies.

The minister emphasised that SA Connect will help to create a vibrant, inclusive and innovative digital economy that will help to improve the lives of South African people.

Thabo Mofutsanyana District Municipality is one of the eight priority pilot districts of SA Connect, where government structures, schools, health clinics and public facilities are being connected to broadband.”

SA Connect, first announced in 2013, is the national broadband project identified by government to meet the technology goals of the National Development Plan of creating an inclusive information society.

In terms of the connectivity project, government aims to bridge broadband connectivity gaps and seeks to achieve the targets set out in the SA Connect policy.

Due to the magnitude of the project, government determined it should be implemented in two stages: phase one and phase two. In terms of phase one, the project aimed to connect schools, health facilities, government offices, Thusong Centres and post offices, in eight rural district municipalities, to broadband services.

While it was still known as the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) developed a new delivery model for SA Connect in collaboration with the State IT Agency (SITA) and Broadband Infraco.

For government to supply connectivity to each of the priority areas, in line with the design of SA Connect, the DCDT has been working with the departments of health, home affairs, basic education and correctional services, according to the minister.

“The focus of SA Connect is on schools and health facilities, and government departments. In addition, SITA will be looking to roll out WiFi around government premises for public access.

“The SA Connect programme will help us to deliver more and better modern services to our citizens. In the longer term, we also believe this project will stimulate greater private sector investment in all of our communities.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams added: “Broadband and the Internet’s importance is that it enables better and more efficient government and private services to our citizens. It is becoming increasingly important, even for small businesses, entertainment industries, information gathering, as well as health, educational and government services.”

Push to digital

Local ICT players have also remarked on the importance of World Telecommunication Day, noting access to connectivity and the benefits of the Internet and ICT for SA.

Telcolink director Cecil Mashawana believes SA is well-positioned to change and embrace ICT, adding there is no better time to do so than now.

According to Mashawana, ICT is the cornerstone of empowering all citizens with the skills required to become active participants in the economy.

Says Mashawana: “Events of the past several months have highlighted the increasing digital divide between those with access to information and technologies and those without. Even though the lockdown has exacerbated this divide, it has also put the spotlight on it, serving as a timely reminder that we as South Africans must collectively do more to change our society.

“We are well-known as a country of entrepreneurs and people who are committed to overcoming the challenges typically associated with developing economies. Whether it is in the primary economy or in the township economy, there is a drive to succeed despite the circumstances. Having access to reliable and affordable Internet connectivity is a key enabler in this regard.”

Mashawana notes that as bandwidth becomes more readily available and data pricing more affordable, access to technology will become democratised.

“ICT must now centre on combining our know-how and innovative way of thinking with powerful tools that can transform the economy of the country and help spark change across the continent. Of course, this is an ongoing battle which requires the private and public sectors to join hands to overcome.

“Government needs the assistance of trusted and experienced ICT partners to help achieve their mandate to create a digitally-driven ‘smart’ society. And the private sector needs policies and regulations that can help facilitate this in the most effective ways possible.”

Vox CEO Jacques du Toit points to four key pillars that can address the expected increase in digital engagement: connectivity, security, mobility and cloud.

“What we do with this is up to us as South Africans. The truth is that the building blocks of connectivity, accessibility and responsibility must become a part of who we are. We South Africans are social by nature and these difficult times are forcing us to think differently about how we engage.

“But irrespective of what we do and how we do it, this should never come to the detriment of our human values. The indomitable South African spirit will live on. We must persevere and embrace the new digital way of doing things.”

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