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Budget, service providers finally in place for SA Connect

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SITA, Broadband Infraco and Sentech will deliver broadband in priority districts.
SITA, Broadband Infraco and Sentech will deliver broadband in priority districts.

Telecoms and postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele is looking to in-house entities to finally deliver broadband services to eight districts identified as priority areas for the pilot phase of the ambitious SA Connect.

As he expanded on some of his plans for the R1.6 billion budget vote yesterday, Cwele said his department decided to utilise the State IT Agency (SITA), Broadband Infraco and Sentech, in line with their mandates, to implement the critical project.

"In the current financial year, we have been allocated R416 million to start connecting 2 700 sites."

Cwele's announcement comes after much delay to kick-start the pilot phase of the project that was announced in 2015. At the time, president Jacob Zuma declared that year "the year of state broadband rollout".

Last year, the department committed to commence the implementation of the first phase of SA Connect in eight pilot districts after following the open tender process by SITA, the minister noted.

However, SITA, the government IT arm charged with finding a suitable service provider for the project, published a cancellation of the tender in the Government Tender Bulletin.

None of the six companies that responded to the bid had met all six technical mandatory requirements, according to the agency.

Cwele noted: "The open tender process by SITA to find a service provider for the rollout of broadband in the eight priority districts unfortunately did not yield a successful bidder among those who participated, resulting in its cancellation in November 2016."

Final push

To meet the technology goals of the National Development Plan, government has undertaken to connect its offices across the country, starting in rural areas, to ensure South Africans have access to the most modern communication tools and services.

Government identified SA Connect as the mechanism by which it would achieve its goals. Due to the magnitude of the project, it decided it should be implemented in two stages.

Telecommunications and postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele. (Photo source: World Economic Forum)
Telecommunications and postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele. (Photo source: World Economic Forum)

Implementation of phase one, which aims to connect all schools, health facilities, government offices and Thusong Centres in the eight priority areas, has been limited.

Government is looking to connect 22 million people to the Internet by the end of 2020.

Democratic Alliance MP and shadow minister of telecoms and postal services Marian Shinn has been critical of the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over the future of the broadband project.

In a statement, Shinn points out SA Connect is another failure of the African National Congress (ANC) government in delivering affordable Internet throughout the country.

The tender to confirm the ANC's choice of a lead agency to manage this ambitious project failed last year, she says.

"Had the minister taken the advice of the National Broadband Advisory Council, rather than snubbing it into oblivion, he would have avoided the 'lead agency' mistake."

Data conundrum

In his budget vote, Cwele added government heard the public outcry over the high cost to communicate and is looking to address this in 2017.

Last year, South Africans, especially the youth, ignited a furore on social media after expressing their frustration over high data costs, resulting in the #DataMustFall movement.

Government agrees with the call from South Africans that "data prices must fall", said the minister.

DA MP and shadow minister of telecoms and postal services Marian Shinn.
DA MP and shadow minister of telecoms and postal services Marian Shinn.

According to Cwele, last year he issued a policy directive to the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) to prioritise the commencement and conclusion of an inquiry and the prescription of regulations to ensure effective competition in broadband markets.

The department is still awaiting concrete interventions from ICASA, he said.

"The response from the regulator suggests they will finalise this work in the next two to three years. The speed of intervention is critical in a rapidly evolving sector such as ICT.

"ICASA's State of ICT Report seems to suggest lack of competition, particularly by dominant players. The report indicates data traffic increased by 55%, data revenue increased from R30 billion to R38 billion, employment decreased by 4 000, yet prices remain sticky at the same level."

Cwele concluded: "In our view, this may need the attention of the Competition Commission. We appeal to operators to start competition in services to ensure costs fall to affordable levels or below 2% of average household income."

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