Mbeki fuzzy on IT detail

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President Thabo Mbeki has stressed that ICT plays a central role in the economy as an enabler and a sector in its own right. However, this year’s State of the Nation address was slim on detail when compared to last year.

Mbeki this morning delivered his penultimate State of the Nation address, which was themed “Business Unusual”.

While government spokespeople said the theme indicated that SA is still on the road of economic growth, outside observers have cynically said it also refers to him “acting” as President, while not being the party leader.

Mbeki attempted to emphasise that IT cuts across all of government’s plans, both as a facilitator and a sector in its own right, and therefore is a priority.

However, Mbeki’s focus on ICT was largely restricted to recurring themes of broadband and the 2010 World Cup. Special mention was made of the initiatives under way at the Department of Home Affairs.

Money for broadband

As part of government’s protracted efforts at bringing down the cost of broadband, Mbeki vowed that the licensing and “operationalisation” of Broadband Infraco, a national broadband wholesaler, will be completed this year.

The Infraco governing act has already been signed by Mbeki and will come into force later this month. However, this morning, the Independent Communications Authority of SA declined to put a date to the licensing of Infraco, citing “outstanding issues”.

Mbeki again announced that national signal distributor Sentech has been allocated money for it to become a wireless Internet wholesaler and to finance the digitisation of its broadcast transmission network. He has made the same promise for two years running. The company has yet to see any of the cash allocated for its various projects, however.

“We aim to provide digital broadcasting to 50% of the population by the end of the year. Attached to this will be a manufacturing strategy for the development in SA of set top boxes, which should be finalised by the middle of the year,” he said.

Mbeki touched on government’s plans to lay undersea cables by saying: “Working with other government departments on the continent and the private sector, we will complete the process to launch the undersea cables.”

Currently, only one undersea cable is under construction, that of privately-funded consortium Seacom, while Infraco has indicated that it wants to lay cables, but no details have been forthcoming as yet.

Doing business unusual

Mbeki emphasised government’s efforts to cut the cost of doing business and mentioned the “tardiness” in which investment applications, in relation to issues such as land acquisition, infrastructure, and environmental impact assessments, are processed. He said work was progressing urgently to set up a call centre through which prospective investors and government can track these processes.

He noted that efforts to turn around the Department of Home Affairs would be intensified this year. This includes improving the IT systems, training of staff on the new systems, rooting out corrupt elements and piloting the proposed ID card system, which has been in the pipeline for at least a decade.

Additionally, Mbeki touched on the revamping of the criminal justice system, which government spokespeople say will include new IT systems that will allow for greater information sharing between the various components such as the police and the courts.

2010 awaits

Allaying growing concerns that SA may not be able to overcome current challenges facing its successful hosting of the 2010 World Cup, Mbeki said the country was firmly focused on meeting its objectives and its guarantees. This includes being ready to host the event curtain-raiser, the FIFA Confederations Cup, next year.

“I mention this important matter here, because the current challenges we are facing have led some to question whether we will be able to host these tournaments successfully,” he said.

However, he did not elaborate on the current state of preparation, or how government intends to tackle these issues.

Government spokespeople say that government is aware of the importance that ICT – in particular communications technologies – will play in the hosting of the World Soccer Cup.

All apologies

Mbeki again apologised, on behalf of government, for the electricity crisis facing SA and reiterated that the plan to get electricity generation back on track was under way.

However, he said that the crisis was not just a challenge, but also an opportunity, implying that it could deepen the country’s industrial base through the increased production of electricity saving devices. Government was also tasked to take the lead in saving electricity as the country has to reduce its consumption by about 10%, to avoid load-shedding and rolling blackouts.

Mbeki said finance minister Trevor Manual would give more information in the budget speech on government’s support to Eskom in its build program.

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