This is what completely useless looks like

If you want to see what a completely useless government department looks like, look no further than South Africa’s Department of Communications.

If it was not for the department, we would all have enjoyed faster, cheaper, and more pervasive broadband years ago.

The ANC-government-run department has been at the forefront of stifling telecoms innovation and ensuring we lag behind the rest of the world.

It started before the ANC took power, when it threatened to revoke the cellular licences granted to Vodacom and MTN.

While this did not happen, the government did provide Telkom with a decade-long monopoly in the fixed-line market.

When self-provisioning was set to kick in, former Minister of Communications Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri would have nothing of it.

It took a legal battle by Altech Autopage Cellular to force the government to allow companies to build their own networks.

It did not stop there. Matsepe-Casaburri announced in 2007 that all undersea cables landing in South Africa must be majority-owned by SA companies.

This would have blocked the SEACOM and EASSy cables, and protected Telkom’s SAT3/SAFE monopoly on international bandwidth.

This failed, SEACOM landed, and international bandwidth prices plummeted.

Digital Migration Mess

These actions, however stupid, can at least be attributed to a misguided belief that the state should do everything for its citizens and make money from it.

But when it comes to the government’s handling of digital migration – and handing spectrum to operators – its incompetence is staggering.

A process which should have been completed in 2011 is still dragging on, with no end in sight.

The breakdown below clearly shows how useless the South African government has been over the past 16 years:

  • 2001 – The Minister appoints the Digital Broadcasting Advisory Board. It investigates digital terrestrial TV standards.
  • 2004 – Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri said they will pilot a policy framework for digital migration.
  • 2006 – Matsepe-Casaburri said the Digital Migration Strategy is a priority area and will be concluded later that year.
  • 2006 – SA commits to meet an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) June 2015 deadline to switch to digital terrestrial TV broadcasting.
  • 2007 – Cabinet approves the digital signal be switched on in November 2008. The analogue signal should be switched off in November 2011.
  • 2009 – Minister Siphiwe Nyanda said progress has been made to meet the November 2011 deadline.
  • 2010 – Trouble starts as the deadline approaches. Nyanda disbands the Digital Dzonga due to potential conflict of interest with council members.
  • 2011 – The analogue signal switch-off deadline is missed. December 2013 is the new deadline.
  • 2013 – The December 2013 deadline is missed. The ITU’s June 2015 date is the new deadline.
  • 2015 – SA misses the June 2015 deadline.
  • 2016 – No clear guidance on when the analogue signal will be switched off.
  • 2017 – The Department tells Parliament it could miss the new 2018 deadline for digital migration due to “supply chain management irregularities”.

The digital migration process is an absolute mess, delaying the availability of faster and cheaper broadband in South Africa.

The reasons for the mess are numerous, including:

  • Changing the communications minister often.
  • Employing incompetent people in the department.
  • Consistent problems and political in-fighting.

A major contributor to the mess was President Jacob Zuma replacing the most competent communications minister we’ve had – Yunus Carrim – in 2014.

If you ask the Department of Communications about the delay, it will tell you “supply chain management irregularities” and “collusion issues” are to blame.

Whatever the reason, this utter mess is a case study on the effects of an incompetent government.

To rub salt in the wounds, the latest ICT Policy White Paper proposes that all unassigned high-demand spectrum be set aside for a Wireless Open Access Network.

This half-baked plan will further delay the assigning of new spectrum to mobile operators.

The shortage of spectrum means that the roll-out of LTE and LTE-A is held back, and the cost of providing good coverage and service levels remains high.

This is an opinion piece.

Now read: South Africa to miss digital migration deadline – again

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This is what completely useless looks like