Wi-Fi may assist in achieving universal access: Cwele

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By Siyabonga Cwele, Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services

  • Speech delivered at the Inaugural Conference of the Wi-Fi Forum of South Africa

“I urge the Wifi Forum of South Africa to work towards ensuring that Wi-Fi as a delivery medium for broadband supports job creation and economic development by contributing to the growth of Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMME’s) which operate within the ICT environment.”

I am pleased to address you this morning at what I am told is the first ever conference of the Wifi Forum of SA.

President Jacob Zuma in his 2015 State of the Nation Address declared this year as the “Year of the Freedom Charter and Unity in Action to Advance Economic Freedom”. Every sector of society should play a part to ensuring that all South Africans alike realise the liberties of the freedom charter as we work towards an equitable society without widespread poverty and unemployment.

I must preface my discussion by stressing the critical role access to reliable and affordable internet connectivity has to play as we grow the South African economy to combat the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Improved access to the internet will modernise and positively impact the transformation of our education system to produce better results, advance the way we do business and boost economic growth as we modernise the delivery of government services and how we interact with government and each other as citizens as we walk our long shared journey to an inclusive information society envisaged by the National Development Access to the internet is the single most powerful equaliser we have to bridge the devastating effects of our Apartheid past which created a gap between the rich and the poor alongside the rural and the urban in South Africa.

Currently, South Africa has a 49% internet penetration rate and only 17% high speed broadband penetration. There is a lot of work before us to ensure that by 2030 we have achieved a 100% penetration rate.

The focus and commitment by government to deliver broadband to all South Africans is based on the understanding that there are significant developmental benefits and impact provided by the availability of ICTs and broadband services. As such, these services must be reliable and affordable to ensure that they are accessible by all South Africans.

In pursuit of this goal, government has developed SA Connect, our national broadband policy to guide how best we can roll out broadband and ICT services to all South Africans. Through SA Connect, government aims to ensure that as we connect all South Africans, it is cost effective to deploy broadband services. Four key tenets underpin the SA Connect Vision and these are digital readiness, digital development, building a digital future and realising digital opportunity.

The first phase of implementation for SA Connect as we work towards an e-ready South Africa is set to begin in the coming month of April 2015. We will connect 580 clinics, 4 444 schools, 182 police stations and 572 other government offices to the internet.

By June this year. We envisage that this will drive an increased uptake and use of ICT services as more South Africans access e-government services for efficient service. The SA Connect policy framework is important to note and reflect on as this forum discusses the best means to deploy Wifi in South Africa.

Reports indicate that 80% of all South Africans who access the internet use smart devices and approximately 70% of internet traffic from mobile devices is directed through Wifi networks in developing countries globally. The inexpensive equipment used to create Wifi hotspots and their low operating costs make it possible for widespread adoption of Wifi as a delivery method for the goals of SA Connect as we connect the unconnected, specifically those in rural areas and informal settlements.

Wi-Fi technology has the potential to play an essential role in achieving universal access to ICTs for our people in rural areas and territories where telephone or cable infrastructure is not deployed. Low-cost Wi-Fi installations could mean the difference between no ICT access of any kind and an affordable service. We are working tirelessly with the industry to ensure that the cost to communicate is lower and thus enable more people to access a connection to the Internet.

I am thus pleased and welcome the formation of the Wifi Forum of South Africa. I am looking forward to hearing about projects that will be run by the Forum to contribute to a Wifi revolution in our cities and most importantly our rural areas and villages which have the least access to fixed line internet connections and mobile broadband services.

I urge the Wifi Forum of South Africa to work towards ensuring that Wi-Fi as a delivery medium for broadband supports job creation and economic development by contributing to the growth of Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMME’s) which operate within the ICT environment.

Furthermore, the ease of deployment of Wi-Fi networks should ensure that it assists already axesting SMME’s to grow their operations. I would like that when we meet in future, we can have more small scale providers and entrepreneurs of Wifi services from the previously disadvantaged communities.

Our collective commitment to a digitally inclusive information society calls for public private partnerships which can best be facilitated by industry bodies like the Wifi Forum of South Africa. I am making a call to the industry stakeholders and leaders to commit to establishing long lasting public private partnerships as we rally together in our common objective for increased access to ICT’s. Government cannot do it alone.

As the Wifi Forum of South African and all your affiliate members, you can play a role in these partnerships by adopting schools, hospitals and other public institutions particularly in the rural areas, and provide them with access to the internet via Wifi as part your corporate social responsibility. This will go a long way to ensure that we meet all our targets as a nation for 2020 and those for Vision 2030 of the National Development As we work towards lowering the costs to connect to the internet, open access networks and infrastructure sharing are necessary to ensure that quality broadband services are delivered to our people.

The private sector can play a role by focusing on increased efficiencies through shared deployment and open access models. The key to Wifi is how we all contribute to the discussion on the development of our rapid deployment policy. Specifically how we handle issues of regulation and enabling access for all.

We support self regulation but we have to define the minimum standards of these services. We encourage you to interact with our officials from the Department as we defined these standards and how we will deal with cybecrimes and the expected ethical behaviour of the providers of these services. My reading of the Wifi Forum’s mission statement indicates that the Forum is committed to be an active participant in rolling out reliable and affordable broadband services to all South Africans.

We already have spheres of government which have adopted Wifi as a mechanism to deliver broadband services to our people. The City of Tshwane has implemented a programme to roll-out wifi access to its residents in the Pretoria CBD and its surrounding townships. The people of Mamelodi, Ga-Rankuwa, Atteridgeville and Mabopane can login to a wifi hotspot located in schools, parks and community libraries. Efforts of this nature are a possible niche where public private partnerships can be cemented in the deployment of Wifi. Small towns and small villages and small enterprises.

I have to stress that the critical focus should be how we deployed Wifi services to the rural areas and villages which have been previously disadvantaged. South Africa has a past where the majority of our people were oppressed by a system which catered for the minority. We have a responsibility as a democratic government and society to redress these injustices and ensure that we restore the dignity of our people by providing services that will cater for their development.

Our inability to close the digital divide will do far much more harm than the Apartheid system. South Africa as a whole needs to work actively to ensure that affordable and reliable access to the internet is not an exclusive privilege, but a reality for all South Africans.

In that regard, I wish this conference success and I urge the Wifi Forum to continue working to develop the Wifi industry in South Africa.

  • (Image: Adriaan Cruywagen of Zoom Photography)

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