Comms minister says canned ECA Bill snubbed Industry 4.0

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Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has hinted of a government policy shift following the withdrawal of the Electronic Communications Amendment (ECA) Bill last month.

Ndabeni-Abrahams spoke in Johannesburg yesterday as Microsoft unveiled two data centre regions in South Africa.

Last month, Ndabeni-Abrahams withdrew the controversial ECA Bill after Parliament's portfolio committee on telecommunications and postal services held public hearings on the Bill in November, a move it described as an opportunity for role-players in the telecoms sector to provide oral submissions on the provisions contained in the Bill.

Last January, telecoms operators and industry players submitted written comments on the Bill, and in March 2018, stakeholders participated in a consultation workshop on the proposed legislation.

The Bill gave effect to the policy objectives set out in the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper, published in late 2016. It contains provisions such as spectrum allocation, the wholesale open access network and rapid deployment policy.

Most South African telecommunications operators have since welcomed the withdrawal of the ECA Bill.

"You have seen that we withdrew the ECA Bill in Parliament, and I know others are not happy about it. But we had to take a decision," said Ndabeni-Abrahams in her keynote address yesterday.

According to the minister, the ECA Bill did not allow SA to reap the benefits promised by the fourth industrial revolution.

"Do we allow the piecemeal intervention in terms of legislation while we all talk about the fourth industrial revolution? The fourth industrial revolution is here, it is not coming. We are living it. Everybody has access to IOTs [Internet of things]; Sophia is here as a robot; companies are industrialising using these technologies. It's not something that is still going to come."

Ndabeni-Abrahams noted SA needs all its laws currently, including regulations and policies, to respond to the fourth industrial revolution.

She added the fourth industrial revolution is a data-centric market which requires government to be able to come up with policies that do not stifle innovation and growth.

"That's why we withdrew the Bill; to say we need a complete overhaul of the laws that we have. We need new policy shift and thinking from those that are making the laws; and the regulators that are making the regulations; including government entities.

"Our mantra in the department, as the lead department in the fourth industrial revolution, is that we have to co-ordinate in order to collaborate for effective execution."

She pointed out the fourth industrial revolution is gaining momentum at an unprecedented, whirlwind pace.

"This perfect storm of technologies is, indeed, paving the way for transformative changes in the way we live and is radically disrupting almost every sector. The onus is, therefore, upon us not to look upon this transformation with fear but ensure we build a capable 4IR army, aptly equipped with a new set of skills."

She said government commissioned a digital skills study that revealed skills in the areas of artificial intelligence, big data, cyber security, digital communications, digital modelling, machine learning, mechatronics, cloud computing, among others, will equip South Africans for future occupations.

"As a response, we are spearheading the 'Building a Capable 4IR Army' programme to ensure communities are equipped to take advantage of new digital technologies, unlock future jobs and drive competitiveness."

According to Ndabeni-Abrahams, this includes skills development and capacity development initiatives aimed at ensuring that, among others, by 2030, one million young people are data scientists.

"Our successes thus far include that more than 20 000 young people have been trained on 4IR-related programmes. In this financial year, we will train 1 000 young people in data science programmes through a partnership with MICT SETA.

"SITA has also opened bursaries for students pursuing tertiary studies in ICT-related fields. We are also positioning NEMISA to be a digital skills institute."

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