The ongoing fibre deployment across South Africa, mostly in affluent areas, leaves out the poor. By Gugu Lourie
As South Africa races to provide faster and more reliable broadband, companies involved are more likely to deploy fibre where there are real possibilities of returns – this simply means poor areas are not a priority.
Giants Telkom, Vodacom, MTN and Neotel plus smaller niche players such as VumaTel, M-WEB, Vox Telecom and Dark Fibre are rolling out fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) and wiring South Africa’s formerly white suburbs to the their fibre networks.
Fibre is being rolled out in suburbs such as Hyde Park in Johannesburg, Fresnaye in Cape Town and Ballito in Durban. These suburbs were likely to be profitable. They are expected to deliver quick returns on investments.
The ongoing rapid deployment of fibre in these suburbs is in contrast to townships and rural areas, where residents are not likely to enjoy broadband in their neighbourhoods anytime soon.
The strategy appears to be to target suburbs for fibre roll-out. Once the market is self-sustaining only then will the rollout move on to less affluent areas.
This simply means that in the short-term South Africans living in poor areas were likely to be excluded. As a result they may not be able to compete for jobs that have to be applied for online. They will also not be able to benefit from opportunities created by the provision of fast broadband.
The South African government recognises that access to broadband has the potential to empower citizens and also to boost the economy.
The government’s national broadband policy, SA Connect, places the department of telecommunications and postal services in a position to coordinate and support the roll-out of broadband infrastructure and services across the country. It aims to achieve 100% broadband penetration by 2020.
But the roll-out of SA Connect is likely to focus, first, on making sure the state becomes digital and is able to respond to citizens needs in a digital world.
Such a move could ensure, for example, that police records are stored in a digital form, which will eliminate the persistent problem of case dockets going missing. Availability of fast and reliable broadband could also assist, among many other uses, in delivering e-health services.
Politicians are on record as suggesting that this development will lead to prosperity and a better life for all South Africans.
Fibre roll-out patterns remain a concern
The fact that investors in fibre will only deploy FTTH in suburbs, to the exclusion of townships and rural areas remains a point of concern.
Understandably, the economics of deploying such a service in townships and rural areas might not make sense to profit-seeking telcos.
It is also unlikely that the government will be able to fund the deployment of fibre to townships and rural areas, where it faces a more pressing housing backlog.
However, the deployment of wireless broadband may be able to assist the state in ensuring that its broadband for all goals will be met.
The country’s communication watchdog – ICASA – has published the long-awaited information memorandum relating to the licensing of a radio frequency spectrum to allow telcos to provide wireless broadband.
But those telcos that are likely to be awarded licenses to deliver wireless broadband access are probably going to focus on profitable areas such as metros.
In 2004 when mobile operators – Vodacom, MTN and Cell C – were given a 3G spectrum licences they were required to provide SIM cards for under-serviced areas as well as internet access and equipment for schools and institutions for people with disabilities.
It is common knowledge that there has been minimal compliance by telcos with the agreed requirements.
However, ICASA, which is aware of the noncompliance, still intends to impose coverage obligations on winning bidders for the spectrum allocation for wireless broadband providers. It wants them to offer coverage in less populated areas before they can be allowed to use the spectrum in more populated regions.
The ICASA demand is aimed at making sure that winning bidders don’t neglect townships and rural areas in wireless broadband roll-out. Without a doubt South Africa will pay a higher price if broadband is not delivered to the townships and far flung rural areas.
The lack of broadband will result in the state not being able to provide quality education and public safety health care services in townships and rural areas to promote economic growth.
It is important to note that since all economic relationships are also social relationships, it follows that the alienation of the poor class from accessing broadband is likely to have direct social ramifications.
The government needs to commission a study to determine how much it will cost to close the digital gap between towns, cities versus townships and rural areas.
Thereafter, as a nation there has to be an open dialogue on the way forward.
The City of Tshwane, Cape Town and Johannesburg have already shown that it is possible to provide free internet access to citizens, which in itself creates opportunities for empowerment and entrepreneurship.
In this regard, the department of telecommunications and postal services needs to move with speed to harness the economic and developmental opportunities offered by broadband.
With state backing, smaller operators might want to fill the gap and roll-out fibre in townships and rural areas.