Ramaphosa’s big broadband promises for South Africa

On Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa unveiled the government’s economic recovery plan, which included interventions to make broadband more affordable.

Part of the government’s plan is to “reduce data costs for every South African and expand broadband access to low-income households”.

“The release of high-frequency spectrum by March 2021 and the completion of digital migration will reduce data costs for firms and households,” Ramaphosa said.

He said this process is being managed by ICASA and will promote transformation, reduce costs, and increase access.

They are also “developing innovative new models to provide low-income households with access to affordable, high-speed internet through connection subsidies for broadband and support for public Wi-Fi hotspots”.

In isolation, these comments sound encouraging – but dig a bit deeper and you realise that these promises are nothing new.

What makes matters worse is that many of the problems around broadband access and mobile data prices were created by the ANC government itself.

Ramaphosa’s latest broadband and data plan is basically a way to fix the damage the government caused over the past 20 years.

Nothing new from Ramaphosa

Promises around telecommunications and broadband costs go back 15 years when former president Thabo Mbeki bemoaned the high fixed-line rates.

“We believe that the unacceptable situation in which some of our fixed line rates are 10 times those of developed countries will soon become a thing of the past,” Mbeki said in 2005.

This “unacceptable situation” was, of course, created by the ANC government by giving Telkom a legally protected monopoly in the fixed-line market.

Former president Jacob Zuma also got in on the action by promising telecoms cost reductions and 100% broadband Internet penetration by 2020.

“We will ensure that the cost of telecommunications is reduced through the projects underway to expand broadband capacity,” he said in 2009.

Ramaphosa joined this chorus in February 2018 by promising the allocation of spectrum to reduce barriers to entry, promote competition, and reduce the cost to consumers.

A year later he once again said: “The Minister of Communications will shortly be issuing policy direction to ICASA for the licensing of the high demand radio frequency spectrum.”

In February 2020, he said ICASA has undertaken to conclude the licensing of high demand spectrum for industry via auction before the end of 2020.

He also followed up his 2018 comments with more promises of “deep cuts to data prices across pre-paid monthly bundles”.

The reality is that many of these promises did not materialise and gave people false hope of a better broadband future.

The government’s attempt to use state-protected monopolies to provide better broadband services, instead of trusting the free market, failed dismally.

Add to that government incompetence, political interference, and corruption, and it is no surprise that digital migration and spectrum allocation has still not happened nine years after the government’s own deadline.

What Ramaphosa said, and what we heard before

The table below provides an overview of what Ramaphosa said in South Africa’s economic reconstruction and recovery plan, and what was said before.

Comments about broadband by presidents
Date President Comment
October 2020 Cyril Ramaphosa Reduce data costs for every South African and expand broadband access to low-income households.
February 2020 Cyril Ramaphosa Deep cuts to data prices across pre-paid monthly bundles and additional discounts targeted at low-income households.
February 2018 Cyril Ramaphosa We will ensure that the allocation of spectrum reduces barriers to entry, promotes competition, and reduces the cost to consumers.
February 2017 Jacob Zuma The lowering of the cost of data is uppermost in our policies and plans
February 2010 Jacob Zuma The South African public can look forward to an even further reduction of broadband, cell phone, landline, and public phone rates.
June 2009 Jacob Zuma We will ensure that the cost of telecommunications is reduced.
February 2006 Thabo Mbeki Work is proceeding apace to address such challenges as the cost of telecommunications.
February 2005 Thabo Mbeki The unacceptable situation in which some of our fixed line rates are 10 times those of developed countries will soon become a thing of the past.
October 2020 Cyril Ramaphosa The release of high-frequency spectrum by March 2021 and the completion of digital migration will reduce data costs for firms and households.
February 2020 Cyril Ramaphosa ICASA has undertaken to conclude the licensing of high demand spectrum for industry via auction before the end of 2020.
June 2019 Cyril Ramaphosa Within the next month, the Minister of Communications will issue the policy direction to ICASA to commence the spectrum licensing process.
February 2019 Cyril Ramaphosa The Minister of Communications will shortly be issuing policy direction to ICASA for the licensing of the high demand radio frequency spectrum.
February 2018 Cyril Ramaphosa We will finalise our engagements with the telecommunications industry and other stakeholders for the allocation of spectrum.

Now read: Here is Ramaphosa’s 4-step plan to fix the South African economy

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Ramaphosa’s big broadband promises for South Africa