The ANC unveiled its 2014 election manifesto on 11 January 2014, promising South Africans better broadband access, free-WiFi areas across the country, and lower communications costs.
These promises may resonate with many citizens, but knowledgeable people who have been following telecoms in the country will question the ANC’s ability to deliver.
Over the years the ANC government and the Department of Communications reneged on so many telecoms and broadband promises that it is challenging to get excited about the latest set.
A history of broken promises and failed projects
Since the ANC took power 20 years ago, it unveiled numerous projects and plans to connect South Africans and reduce the price to communicate.
The biggest of these projects was given to state protected monopoly Telkom – in which government holds a controlling stake – with the agreement that it would roll out services in rural and semi-urban areas. This strategy failed spectacularly.
Soon after rolling out the infrastructure Telkom was forced to disconnect around 2 million lines because of non-payment (see Telkom fixed line slump).
The damage caused by protecting Telkom’s monopoly and holding competition back for over a decade is still felt in the local telecoms arena.
Other projects which government promised will solve South Africa’s broadband woes – including Sentech being a national wireless broadband provider, Infraco driving down national backhaul prices, and municipalities bringing affordable broadband to its citizens – have been less than impressive.
Looking at the ANC’s promises
Looking at the ANC’s promises in more detail shows that it is nothing new, and not much more than political rhetoric.
ANC promise 1 – We will invest in a comprehensive plan to expand broadband access throughout the country and substantially reduce the cost of communication.
As far back as 2005 the Department of Communications (DoC) has been punting the importance of broadband for all and devising plans to make this happen.
“My department is leading other relevant departments to address the question of increasing both the affordable access to and use of broadband,” the late communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri said in her 2005 budget vote speech.
Her successors – Siphiwe Nyanda (2010), Roy Padayachie (2011), Dina Pule (2012) and Yunus Carrim (2013) – all promised broadband for all and cheaper communications. Their plans did not result in much.
The simple truth is that the DoC has been a strain, instead of a catalyst, to the roll out of broadband services and in driving down the cost of communications. Here are a few examples:
- Until 2008, the DoC prohibited companies from rolling out networks and connecting people to protect Telkom against competition.
- In 2008 the minister of communications got an urgent court interdict to prevent companies from “self-provisioning” after a court ruling that it was legal. She lost the case.
- In 2007 the DoC unsuccessfully tried to block EASSy and Seacom from landing in South Africa. These cable systems had a very positive impact on broadband in SA.
- The DoC’s poor handling of the digital TV migration process means that valuable frequency spectrum cannot be freed for broadband access. The deadlines continue to be moved forward, with no end in sight.
- The DoC continues to delay handing valuable spectrum to service providers to connect South Africans.
The only reason that South Africa has a fairly well developed broadband market – mainly driven by wireless broadband services – is because of private investments by companies such as Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, Neotel, and Telkom.
ANC promise 2 – We aim to connect all schools, public health and other government facilities through broadband by 2020, and at least 90% of our communities should have substantial and superfast broadband capacity by 2020.
Government has been saying that it will connect all schools, health facilities and government facilities for years. If they could have done it, they would have done it by now.
The dream of giving everyone in South Africa access to affordable, fast broadband is also nothing new. It has been part of the DoC’s promises for nearly a decade.
While the DoC talks a good game with many broadband colloquiums, workshops, and policy documents, it is very thin on workable plans on how it will achieve its goals.
The only way this will ever happen is if government partners with Vodacom, MTN, and Cell C for rural connectivity, and includes Telkom and Neotel for cities and larger towns.
The sad truth is that government has been making it difficult for these operators to roll out networks rather than assisting them.
ANC promise 3 – Government will support and develop free-WiFi areas in cities, towns and rural areas.
WiFi is a promising technology to connect people, but rolling out a city-wide wireless network and operating such a network is complex and expensive.
There are a few promising small scale WiFi deployments in Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Pretoria, but that is all they are – promising small scale deployments.
A city-wide WiFi network requires a reliable access network, a robust backhaul network, and national and international connectivity to serve residents.
To successfully build and operate such a network requires an organisation with high level skills and strong management expertise – basically a well-run telecoms operator.
These operators already exist, and many of them are already offering Wi-Fi access to their subscribers and residents.
Should government really try to compete against these operators using taxpayers’ money, given their track record in the telecoms space?
Hat tip to ‘ads’ for his comments on the ANC’s broadband and telecoms promises.