The private sector has a role to play in bridging the digital divide: Cwele

By Siyabonga Cwele, Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services

“The private sector too has a role to play in bridging the digital divide. We’ll continue to engage it and discuss areas where it should direct its investment. These consultations will also consider possible incentives for investing in under serviced areas. We are positive that access to broadband provides us with modern building blocks as the country continuously strives to create sustainable jobs for the future, especially for our youth. This is why ICTs have been identified as catalytic sectors that President Zuma also announced that Government has decided to designate Telkom as the lead entity, among other government agencies, to rollout fixed broadband”

President Jacob Zuma announced during the State of the Nation Address that Government will pilot connecting government facilities in eight poor district municipalities to fast and reliable internet as part of Phase 1 of the implementation of South Africa Connect. The announcement sets in motion a number of activities that seek to address the market failure in the rollout of broadband. Throughout the country, broadband infrastructure is deployed in a manner that is skewed towards the rich. There are instances wherein one community would enjoy access to cutting edge broadband technology and another, merely separated by a street, has to make do with inferior technology. Quiet often, you find this pattern repeating itself as both public and private companies duplicate infrastructure in the well-off communities, to the exclusion of poor communities.

We have taken a deliberate decision to intervene in the rollout of broadband to bring services to the poor and to close the digital divide. If we fail to extend broadband services to the poor, the effect would be worse than Apartheid. Scars caused by this exclusion would be permanent and very deep.Accordingly, this year we shall start Phase 1 of broadband rollout by connecting health facilities, schools and other government institution to poor communities. These identified district municipalities are Dr Kenneth Kaunda in the North West, Gert Sibande in Mpumalanga, OR Tambo in the Eastern Cape, Pixley ka Seme in the Northern Cape, Thabo Mofutsanyane in the Free State, Umgungundlovu and Umzinyathi in KwaZulu- Natal and Vhembe in Limpopo.

We also want to pilot the greater use of technology to improve the efficiency of the services we deliver. This rollout will be accompanied by the requisite training to ensure that officials are able to use the technology that is available to them to improve the efficiency of their work and the quality of service experienced by the citizens. These municipalities were identified to have the greatest need and, working with National Treasury, funds have been set aside for the rollout of broadband this year. The sites also coincide with the pilot sites for the National Health Insurance.

The announcement is confirmation of our firm commitment to radically transform and modernise society by connecting, over time, all South Africans to the transformative and developmental power of the internet, as envisaged by the National Development Plan. We want to ensure that all South Africans are taken on board as we build an inclusive knowledge society that will make the country globally competitive. Through the Strategic Integrated Project 15, we have consulted state-owned companies, municipalities, provinces and other government departments in developing the broadband rollout plan. This work, done through the CSIR, helped us to identify infrastructure the gaps. The proposals we refined through this consultation were sent to Cabinet for approval.

The private sector too has a role to play in bridging the digital divide. We’ll continue to engage it and discuss areas where it should direct its investment. These consultations will also consider possible incentives for investing in under serviced areas. We are positive that access to broadband provides us with modern building blocks as the country continuously strives to create sustainable jobs for the future, especially for our youth. This is why ICTs have been identified as catalytic sectors that President Zuma also announced that Government has decided to designate Telkom as the lead entity, among other government agencies, to rollout fixed broadband.

The decision was taken because we want to accelerate the rollout of broadband. Telkom has the most extensive infrastructure in the country compared to other public and private sector players. Furthermore, the current infrastructure rollout by both public and private sector players is fragmented, leads to duplication of efforts and resources, and is not expanding connectivity to uneconomic and underserved rural areas and townships. It is therefore necessary for government to facilitate the extension of optic fibre infrastructure for the benefit of all South Africans and other industry players through the establishment of an integrated national broadband network.

The rollout of optic fibre infrastructure will be central to the future use of broadband in an interconnected society and economy because it is more reliable and capable of delivering faster speeds. SA Connect sets a target of broadband access at 10 megabits per second for all South Africans by 2030 and at 100 megabits per second for 80% of the population that same year. We need optic fibre infrastructure to be able to efficiently deliver on mission critical services such as health.The use of other technologies such as satellite and wireless will ensure speedy roll-out whilst also ensuring connectivity to areas that are hard to reach through optic fibre due to the terrain. These are some of the considerations that informed the decision to designate Telkom as the lead entity in the rollout of broadband. The designation of Telkom also moves us towards the creation of an open access network. This network will usher in an era of services-based competition instead of infrastructure-based competition. We anticipate that such a dispensation will lead to more effective competition between operators and, over time, lower prices for consumers.

Government has taken a decision to intervene in the infrastructure roll-out through the aggregation of its demand for broadband services to ensure that infrastructure is also rolled out in uneconomic areas. The partnership between Government and Telkom will facilitate coordination and efficient use of resources by all parties in order to expedite the achievement of South Africa Connect objectives whilst leveraging on existing broadband infrastructure to minimize the cost of network expansion.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the article TechFinancials. The state is doing a great thing about choosing Telkom and the private sector has failed the poor for many years when it comes to basic internet access. Lets hope Telkom will deliver quality broadband infrastructure. But the big question is where is the money going to come from?

  2. A noble idea, but to rollout this infrastructure will cost R90 billion. Will government have enough money to fund this? Just maybe, this should have been left to private companies Vodacom and MTN to do.

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