The broadband pipe dream

Communications minister Dina Pule said in her 2012 communications budget vote speech that the Department of Communications remains committed to delivering 100% broadband penetration by 2020 and delivering a million jobs by 2020.

Pule said that rolling out a national broadband network is one of her department’s prioritized flagship programmes “which are at the core of building a digital information and knowledge society”.

The promise of ‘broadband for all’ is however nothing new. All of Pule’s predecessors have promised the same in one form or another.

Another broadband study needed

Pule said that there are no authoritative statistics on broadband penetration in South Africa. “We have thus decided to conduct a study into broadband coverage, penetration and speed in South Africa,” said Pule.

This finding is surprising because the DoC has conducted various studies, including international peer benchmarking studies, which assessed aspects like broadband pricing, broadband speeds and broadband penetration levels in South Africa.

Roy Padayachie
Roy Padayachie

Former communications minister Roy Padayachie even released the DoC’s e-Barometer report in August 2011 which included detailed statistics like fixed line penetration rates, broadband penetration rates, Internet penetration rates, broadband coverage and bandwidth per inhabitant.

The DoC further included broadband penetration rates in their presentations to parliament, and one hopes that the statistics used by the DoC was based on “authoritative statistics”.

Broadband for all

DoC Team - Rosey Sekese, Dina Pule, Themba Phiri
Dina Pule flanked by Rosey Sekese (left) and Themba Phiri (right)

Pule reiterated that the DoC, together with the ICT industry, have committed to delivering 100% broadband penetration and delivering a million jobs by 2020.

According to Pule, between R60- to R89-billion is needed to build a telecommunications broadband network throughout the country and to reduce connectivity costs.

This is again nothing new. As far back as 2005 the DoC has been punting the importance of broadband for all and devising plans to make this happen.

Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri
Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

“For Government affordable access to broadband is also crucial for achieving socio-economic development goals especially for the provision of public services such as e-learning, e-health and e-government,” said the late communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri in her 2005 budget vote speech.

“Accordingly my department is leading other relevant departments to address the question of increasing both the affordable access to and use of broadband.”

In 2006 Matsepe-Casaburri even revealed the DoC’s plan for Sentech to form the core of a wireless broadband infrastructure network that South Africa would use to advance its socio-economic development goals.

Sentech’s wireless broadband infrastructure network will be expanded beyond the current footprint and enable it to carry voice to the end user in the provision of this service,” said the communications minister in 2006.

Siphiwe Nyanda
Siphiwe Nyanda

Former communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda also promised broadband for everyone – this time by 2019. “We have finalized the Broadband policy whose vision is to ensure that South Africans have universal access and services to broadband by 2019,” said Nyanda in his 2010 communications budget vote speech.

Not much has changed since 2006. Pule told parliament that the ‘Broadband Master Plan’, once finalised, “will ensure that rural connectivity is delivered in a coordinated manner with the participation of Sentech and Broadband Infraco“.

More trips and talk

The DoC recently hosted a “National Integrated ICT Policy Colloquium aimed at creating a platform for the ICT industry to review the Department’s ICT policies”.

According to Pule this policy review “should address availability, accessibility and affordability of broadband”.

To ensure that they are on the right track the DoC even visited Malaysia to learn and share broadband experiences. “They have reinforced our belief that a rapid rollout of broadband is possible,” said Pule.

It is not clear how the Malaysia expedition and the colloquium is any different from the two DoC colloquiums which were held in 2005 to improve broadband and telecoms pricing, or the many previous trips find out how to boost broadband in SA.

Less yada yada, more work

Maybe the main difference between countries like Malaysia and South Korea (which have great broadband economies) and South Africa (where broadband is lacking), is that instead of talking about the problem they are actually fixing it. Less talk, more action!

The DA’s Marian Shinn explained it well when she said that the DoC engages in “endless consultation and consensus-seeking” while many opportunities pass South Africa by.

One of the things which does not help, for example, is sitting on extremely valuable spectrum (such as 2.6GHz) for years; spectrum which can be used for faster and cheaper broadband access. Keeping to deadlines regarding digital TV migration, which will free up more valuable LTE spectrum, will also further the DoC’s goals.

While the DoC’s dream of “100% broadband penetration by 2020 and delivering a million jobs by 2020” are admirable, it will remain a dream unless some real work is done (this does not mean policies, talk shops and international trips).

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The broadband pipe dream