Govt mum on SA Connect progress

The SA Connect broadband project aims to have 90% of the country's population connected by 2020.
The SA Connect broadband project aims to have 90% of the country's population connected by 2020.

Government's big broadband push project appears to be at a standstill, as there is no clear indication of the course of implementation of SA Connect.

The 6th of December 2015 marked two years since the policy was published, and progress to date has almost entirely been limited to various uncoordinated initiatives by provinces and metros, according to BMI-TechKnowledge (BMI-T).

The ICT research and consulting firm says SA Connect is suffering from a slow start, which means its milestone targets are at risk.

The Democratic Alliance's (DA's) Marian Shinn says "the ambitious national broadband plan needs the involvement of the private sector if it is to make progress".

Connected citizens

SA Connect is the national broadband policy adopted by Cabinet in 2013 to deliver 100% broadband connectivity for all schools, health and government facilities by 2020. The broadband project aims to deliver broadband access to 90% of the country's population by 2020 and 100% by 2030.

As part of the first phase of the project, eight district municipalities were identified as the pilot sites for SA Connect.

In July 2015, the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) said government had started implementing the first phase of SA Connect.

The first phase of the project has set out to connect 1 296 government facilities in the eight rural district municipalities to fast, secure and always-available Internet, which is scalable for future demand over three years, until 2017.

In the 2015 budget, National Treasury allocated R739 million over the Medium-Term Economic Framework for SA Connect; however, there has been no clarity on how the money is to be spent.

"There is no clarity from the DTPS on whether the first tranche of R200 million in the current fiscal has been paid to the department against its implementation plan, which was due at the end of 2015," says Shinn.

Taking the lead

In November, during his address in the National Assembly, president Jacob Zuma confirmed fixed-line operator, Telkom, will take the lead in the deployment of broadband infrastructure for SA Connect.

However, the president's move raised eyebrows, especially given the magnitude of the project.

Shinn says minister Siyabonga Cwele's failure to provide feedback on the progress of SA Connect indicates the DTPS has been defeated by the scale of managing this massive programme.

The DTPS failed to meet 21 of its 29 targets in 2014/15, and this shows the department does not have the expertise, capacity or management skills required for SA Connect, she says.

"The politically brave move last year to appoint Mark Barnes from the private sector to rescue the South African Post Office, must be copied here," says Shinn.

"It is time for National Treasury, realising the critical need for South Africa to become part of the interconnected global economy and for government to boost service delivery to its citizens, to insist the private sector take the lead in driving this programme's funding initiatives and implementation."

George Kalebaila, senior research manager at IDC, also says the implementation of SA Connect will have to involve private-public partnerships (PPPs) in order to really succeed.

"Telkom cannot be the only player as this is a mammoth project. Lots of other players, especially in the private sector, need to be involved.

"Government needs to provide incentives to private sector companies to be key players in this ambitious project," says Kalebaila.

Clear leadership

According to BMI-T telecoms sector specialist, Tim Parle, the market is waiting for a plan to emanate from the SA Connect policy. SA Connect represents the most significant telecommunications programme ever seen in South Africa. It could only be achieved with the participation of the public and private sectors, he says.

"The realisation of some of the elements of SA Connect is certainly plausible but this will require direction from the public sector and the involvement and buy-in of the private sector. The skills, expertise, knowhow and capital to do this lie mostly in the private sector. If coordinated and managed, the gap between where we are today and what we desire can be closed," says Parle.

Naila Govan-Vassen, ICT industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan Africa, says SA Connect's main aim is to ensure the provision of broadband connectivity in the rural and less densely populated areas in SA.

These investments are typically not economically feasible for the private sector so a project like this requires cooperation between a range of stakeholders, for instance through viable PPPs, she says.

"What is lacking at this stage is clear leadership and a viable plan as to where infrastructure needs to be developed and which components can be leveraged from existing infrastructure managed by both public and private service providers.

"The government can also provide incentives for the development of broadband in rural areas and take responsibility for frequent reviews of the project's progress whilst inviting third-parties, such as private service providers, to tender for contracts," she explains.

According to Govan-Vassen, the current uncertainty suggests the target of providing connectivity to 90% of the population by 2020 will not be met, but, given SA's existing infrastructure and private sector capabilities, effective leadership could result in better outcomes.

ITWeb's attempts to get responses from the DTPS were unanswered at the time of publishing.

Not all doom and gloom

Despite delays in the full implementation of SA Connect, South Africa is still miles ahead of the rest of the continent in terms of Internet penetration.

This is according to Kalebaila, who says SA is ahead of the curve as Internet penetration in the country is much higher than Sub-Saharan Africa.

IDC estimates show SA has 50% Internet penetration, and 40% of that is mainly driven by smartphone adoption in the country.

Meanwhile, Internet penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa is just below 15% and less than 20% for the rest of the continent, says Kalebaila.

Read time 5min 20sec
Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
IT in government editor

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba is the IT in government editor at ITWeb. She reports on tech initiatives, policies and digital transformation strategies in government, banking and education. She holds an honour's degree in journalism from Rhodes University. Behind that smile, she is plotting how best to get government officials to respond to her emails before deadline :)

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