Earlier this month the Department of Communications (DoC) made headlines when it promised to provide broadband access for all South Africans and to create an additional million Information and Communications Technology (ICT) jobs by 2020.
While these targets seemed ambitious, those in the ICT space with good memories called the department out on its plan. Among other things, the question of the definition of broadband was raised.
Currently the DoC defines a broadband connection as “an always available, multimedia connection with a download speed of at least 256kbps” as per its Broadband Policy for South Africa.
This definition is taken from recommendations from bodies such as the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) which defined broadband in the developing world as a connections with 256kbps download speeds.
In other nations a connection must have “transmission capacity that is faster than primary rate Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) at 1.5 or 2.0 Megabits per second (Mbps)” for it to be considered broadband.
Defining “broadband” and “for all”
During a press briefing held in Sunninghill after a meeting between the DoC and various players in the ICT sector, the DoC said that they are busy “doing the necessary benchmarking with other countries” and may consider increasing the download speeds to 2Mbps in their definition of broadband.
On the question of access, the DoC explained that what is meant by “100% broadband penetration” is population coverage and not geographic coverage. According to the DoC the plan is for the whole of South Africa’s population to be within the coverage of a broadband network.
According to the DoC, digital terrestrial television (DTT) also allows them an opportunity to deal with issues of universal access of broadband services. Set-top boxes (STBs) required to receive digital TV signals will have a network port on it, the DoC said, meaning that people without PCs can connect the box to the Internet and their TV.
Firstly there is the issue of social inclusion at the minimum speed. Secondly, the DoC also considers the type of bandwidth businesses need to help foster economic growth in South Africa, Sekese said.
To deal with the issue of social inclusion the department will not only be looking at providing coverage where there is none, but also consider existing underutilised infrastructure. If people have access to broadband services why aren’t they subscribing? If they don’t see the benefit of the service what can be done to make it more attractive?
“We would need to address not just supply, but stimulate demand as well,” Sekese said.
With cost considered a barrier to entry, Sekese said that it is also a factor they need to look at.
Who will build it?
Asked what this universal broadband network would look like, Sekese conceded that they can’t roll out broadband purely as Sentech and Infraco – they just don’t have the capacity for that kind of scale.
Sekese said that there will be space for the public sector but also a critical role for the private sector in the roll-out of universal broadband in South Africa.
As the private sector’s main goal is profit, there are certain places where they just don’t go, Sekese said. The roll-out to under-serviced areas will be a big consideration when the time comes to license new spectrum to operators in the high demand 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands, as well as the digital dividend, Sekese said.