'SA must redefine ICTs'

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ICTs should be defined as a basic utility like water and electricity, according to president Jacob Zuma.

Speaking at the 53rd ANC National Policy Conference this week, Zuma said SA needs to ensure ICT becomes an enabler in the country. “Every home should be able to have access to the electronic media.”

The discussion document on communications proposes that a single national ICT policy framework be developed. The Department of Communications (DOC) expects to conclude all the legislative requirements for developing a new integrated ICT policy by the end of next year.

Policy interventions

The discussion document says the world has been undergoing an ICT revolution. The result is a knowledge economy where access to information becomes the key determinant of the extent to which individuals, communities, societies and whole regions can shape their lives and compete for jobs and services.

“Globalisation, however, has also sharpened inequalities between regions and nations, and within nations, producing winners and losers and a core and a periphery. The ANC policy is aimed at fighting this segregation and inequality, and working nationally, regionally and internationally to ensure a more just social order.”

The document places emphasis on the need for an overarching national ICT policy to inform the future growth and developmental trajectory of the ICT sector.

The document proposes various policy interventions across several areas. These include ICTs and development; research, development and innovation; broadcasting infrastructure and services; print media transformation; postal infrastructure; and ICTs for improving organisational effectiveness and efficiency.

African lag

The document adds that, since the advent of democracy in 1994, SA has made significant strides to facilitate the transformation of the ICT industry. However, in recent years, SA has lagged behind in a number of key global ICT indicators, especially on universal access to the Internet, broadcasting and e-governance.

“This is as a consequence of fragmented and uncoordinated policy and institutional arrangements. As a result, we have not fully exploited the opportunities presented by our technological advances.”

Even on the continent, SA has lost its position as a leader in the rollout of ICT services. Senegal and Egypt are emerging as leaders, according to the document. “Our country also lags behind other BRICS countries in almost all aspects of the ICT value chain.”

While mobile communications have reached over 100% penetration, the same cannot be said of high-speed Internet networks, with penetration levels of less than 20% of the population, according to the ruling party.

“Mobile broadband penetration still stands at less than 11% (households) and 8% (business), and according to the International Telecommunications Union, fixed broadband in SA is at below 10%. Universal broadcasting signal is not available in about 448 rural and remote areas of our country.”

Compulsory e-skills

“On the skills front, many young people from historically-disadvantaged backgrounds come out of the basic education system, never having been exposed to ICTs. This impacts their performance in institutions of higher learning, as well as their ability to adapt and become competent in the use of ICTs.”

The document suggests that e-skills become a compulsory subject in all public schools to promote an e-literate society. “Other successful and leading nations have dedicated universities to develop and produce highly-skilled ICT practitioners and experts. Various options should be explored, including developing one of the existing universities to specialise in ICT.”

The Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) says this is a bold proposal, but it must be supported as a major contribution to skills development and decent job creation.

Government duplication

“SA has also not invested in developing specialised research and development skills. Yet there is great potential in ICT research and development and innovation that needs to be unlocked in order for the country to become globally competitive.”

Cosatu also says there remain serious gaps that have constrained the ability of SA's ICT sector to respond to the needs of the people. There are several reasons for this state of the sector and these include the lack of a comprehensive national ICT policy, leading to overlaps and competition within government; institutional misalignment and limited accountability; limited e-skills within the state and society as a whole; inadequate funding of projects aimed at promoting universal service and access; and corporate governance challenges in key institutions and relevant departments.

Additional reasons include failure by the policy and regulatory institutions to enforce compliance with the law; limited and misaligned research and development; and policies are not based on evidence so they keeping changing even before the results can be realised.

Impossibly utopian

The document says to maximise the value of the development of ICTs, and to accelerate the uptake and usage of ICT tools, the ANC needs to create a coherent and co-ordinated National Policy Framework and Strategy.

The National ICT Policy will, among others, promote the provision of universal access to high-speed, quality and affordable networks; inform the deployment of ICTs across the country and inform regulatory interventions to ensure a world-class digital infrastructure; and define ICTs as a basic utility, similar to water and electricity.

This suggested definition shows how rapidly SA has now moved into the IT age, says Cosatu. “A few years ago that demand would have sounded impossibly utopian.”

However, it adds that the crucial test is to see the policy materialise. “As with so many ambitious ANC policies over the years, the biggest challenge is to turn this document's fine words into deeds.”

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