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SA 'failing' at telecoms

Johannesburg, 25 May 2015
Read time 4min 50sec
Government has made too many stop and start moves, says telecommunications and postal services deputy minister Hlengiwe Mkhize.
Government has made too many stop and start moves, says telecommunications and postal services deputy minister Hlengiwe Mkhize.

South Africa is failing at broadband, as government has only met one of the international goals set for this year, which means the economy will continue to be stifled.

Deputy telecommunications and postal services minister Hlengiwe Mkhize has admitted to SA's lack of progress in meeting the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Broadband Commission's objectives.

Speaking to ITWeb after delivering a budget vote last week, Mkhize noted the country is behind in making broadband more affordable and accessible because of a lack of involvement from the private sector, which has become cynical because of government's stops and starts.

The Broadband Commission was set up in 2010 by the ITU and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation to boost the importance of broadband on international policy agendas. The commission defines practical ways countries, at all stages of development, can expand broadband access by the end of this year.

The commission believes worldwide broadband access is critical to fully realise the Millennium Development Goals post-2015. In her budget speech, Mkhize noted the department's strategic broadband policy plan has been aligned with the commission's outcomes.

Missed targets

The first target set by the commission - which states broadband investment is needed to eradicate poverty and make it possible for developing countries to take part in the digital economy - is to have a national broadband plan. Mkhize notes government has a plan - SA Connect - to make broadband ubiquitous.

However, she says government is behind in implementing this strategy, and has also not met the second target of making entry-level broadband services affordable through adequate regulation by 2015. Broadband costs should not amount to more than 5% of a country's average monthly income.

Mkhize says this target is being missed because there is a lack of private sector involvement, a situation she ascribes to "too many stop and go kinds of moves on the part of government, which has in a way made the private sector cynical".

The department has recognised the private sector is a critical player in ensuring broadband costs come down, and is working on several ways to rectify the broken relationship, says Mkhize. This includes being clear and concise when outlining its operational areas to the private sector.

Mkhize adds the department is also engaging with the Department of Trade and Industry around incentives for the private sector. "We have been saying to the minister of trade and industry that we need benefits from the incentive schemes for the private sector."

The third target states, by 2015, 40% of households in developing countries should have Internet access. Mkhize notes, while not all of the 40% of households have fixed-line access, this target is more than met through cellular operators.

The challenge, says Mkhize, is expanding penetration to rural areas. Target four states Internet user penetration should reach 50% of the population in developing countries. "There are very few people in South Africa who have no access at all, even though it might only be through one family member."

Action needed now

Ovum analyst Richard Hurst says SA's lack of progress in meeting the international targets earns it an F, and that is being generous. "We're great at making plans, but actually implementing the plan, that's the issue."

Hurst notes the country is not using the tools at its disposal to unlock investment and drive down prices. "It is a matter of actually using what is available."

Although the department understands it is behind in meeting the goals, there is a chasm between thought and reality, says Hurst. He notes it is "fine" for government to say it understands its shortcomings, but this is meaningless without action.

Hurst notes "drastic action" and political will are required because every day government lets the goals slip, the negative facets are compounded. He adds South Africa should be showing the way for the rest of Africa when it comes to ICT. "When you're in a hole, stop digging."

IDC analyst Mark Walker notes admitting there is an issue is the first big step, but the targets are "massively ambitious" for SA to meet. He says the only way government can make the goals happen is through huge private sector participation.

Walker notes SA has a vast population, and a big problem with income inequality and - while there is high mobile penetration - mobile broadband access is concentrated among more affluent consumers. He says government needs to plan, prioritise, partner and execute with careful management to make sure it gets to full broadband penetration.

ICT is mission-critical, says Walker, noting it is tied to economic progress. According to the World Bank, a 10% increase in broadband penetration leads to a 1.4% economic gain.

Walker notes the targets can be met within a realistic time frame, but only with a proper plan and the correct will, otherwise it will take 100 years to roll out broadband to all of SA's 200-odd municipalities. The first eight municipalities to be hooked up under SA Connect will only come online in three years' time.

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