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SA’s top scholars explore 5G opportunities

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Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, UJ vice-chancellor and principal.
Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, UJ vice-chancellor and principal.

Top South African academics have lamented the continuous delays in the auctioning of spectrum and believe this is hindering the adoption of 5G technologies.

The academics were speaking ahead of today’s webinar hosted by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

The varsities today host the inaugural Impact of Spectrum on Higher Education and Society webinar. The webinar will provide a holistic explanation of spectrum, and an understanding of the current context and identify its possible impact for the higher education sector.

It will also enable the wider society to identify strategic levers essential for our country’s development.

The webinar will feature a diverse range of local and international experts, including from government, the higher education sector and key role-players in the telecoms industry.

The webinar comes as telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has indicated it will auction the much-needed spectrum in March next year.

South Africa’s allocation of spectrum has been up in the air for a number of years, with the last significant spectrum awarded 16 years ago.

The last big set of spectrum issued was in the 2.1GHz band, which helped the operators in their 3G network deployment.

So far, mobile operators have launched 5G services in SA’s big cities and it is expected the auctioning of spectrum will enable operators to expand their 5G networks.

In today’s webinar, UJ vice-chancellor and principal professor Tshilidzi Marwala will lead a session that will also feature a special address by the minister of communications and digital technologies Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, Wits professor Zeblon Vilakazi, as well as regional directors of Telkom, Vodacom and MTN.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Witwatersrand.
Photo credit: Wits University
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Witwatersrand. Photo credit: Wits University

Marwala says SA is faced with a fast-changing world characterised by deep inequality and inequity.

“While the opportunities presented by digital technologies are vast, we cannot ignore our digital divide, which mirrors many of the other divisions in our country,” he says.

He adds that the digital divide is encompassed by access to the internet, education, skilled-employment and technological innovation.

“It is not just along class lines but across gender and if you delve into the statistics, even race. Yet, in a world which is increasingly becoming digital, we cannot equate technology with privilege. This has been apparent during the pandemic at higher education institutions, as students have struggled with connecting in a remote setting.”

The statistics are certainly damning, says Marwala. According to a 2017 Statistics SA report on inequality, the proportion of households with access to an internet connection in SA grew significantly from 23.9% in 2009 to 62.2% by 2017.

Yet, he says, as the data indicated, even though there was increased access to internet connections in households in rural areas, they lagged significantly behind households in urban areas – highlighting a stark digital divide.

In a report released earlier this year, the Free Market Foundation found that with the current regulatory framework, 75% of South Africans will miss out on opportunities presented by access to the 3.5GHz radio frequency band, which is imperative for delivering next-generation 5G broadband services and emerging mobile services. As the report states, delays in spectrum “could create a situation in which over one-third of SA’s population are robbed of their fundamental socio-economic benefits – this is unparalleled on a global basis”.

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