Inclusive economic recovery requires connected citizens

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Broadband Infraco CEO Andrew Matseke.
Broadband Infraco CEO Andrew Matseke.

We desperately need connectivity to be available everywhere in South Africa, says Broadband Infraco (BBI) CEO Andrew Matseke.

Matseke made the comment during an online roundtable discussion hosted by BBI yesterday, in partnership with Cisco. The dialogue focused on “technology as an enabler to inclusive economic recovery”.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 a year ago and the lockdown that followed, the need for people to work remotely and for students to study remotely away from their lecturers actually exposed us as a country.

“The digital divide and the lack of inclusivity stick out like a sore thumb – one can actually see who is and isn’t advantaged.”

He remarked on the impact of providing Internet connectivity in remote areas, referencing a free WiFi hotspot pilot in Msunduzi Local Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal rolled out as part of the SA Connect programme.

“Once there is a hotspot, people actually come to the hotspot where there is free WiFi,” he said.

“We must not assume that when you provide connectivity, people only use it for social media. People download job opportunities and upload CVs, engage in other forms of economic activity that would not be possible if that connectivity wasn’t there.”

Matseke noted that government’s national broadband project, SA Connect, is intended to be rolled out to achieve the penetration of broadband that is required for universal connectivity availability in SA.

SA Connect was first announced in 2013, with government identifying it as a means 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.

This week, ITWeb reported the SA Connect policy document has been revised to put in place a basic minimum speed for connectivity of 100Mbps, up from the current 10Mbps.

The CEO explained: “We have, as Broadband Infraco, participated in the limited rollout of SA Connect. Up to today, we have implemented just under a thousand sites, when the target is in the region of 45 000 sites.

“There’s a bigger rollout of SA Connect that is still coming. We have implemented SA Connect on a small scale in eight district municipalities that cover the under-developed areas of our country.”

Merger on the horizon

Turning to the planned merger of BBI and Sentech, Matseke reiterated its purpose is to create what will be called the State Digital Infrastructure Company (SDIC).

The BBI and Sentech merger forms part of the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies’ plans to reconfigure some of the entities in line with president Cyril Ramaphosa’s mandate to streamline government departments and entities.

SDIC will, at its core, have a significant broadband mandate, revealed Matseke. “SDIC will essentially be a broadband company.

“We are playing a significant role in ensuring we prepare ourselves for when the current Broadband Infraco is merged with Sentech to be able to deliver on that mandate.”

Turning to inclusive economic recovery, he remarked that today’s technology and its use in the economy goes hand-in-hand with the topic of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

“One of the key issues at the core of 4IR and at the core of the ability to use technology effectively in the economy is the availability of connectivity.

“A lot of the economic activities of today require the participant to be connected to the rest of South Africa and to the rest of the world.

“That connectivity relies on sufficient and broadly available infrastructure that should reach into even the rural areas of South Africa. Part of the challenge of inclusive economic recovery requires us to talk to and address the availability of digital infrastructure on a universal basis throughout the country.”

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