The ANC government must not be allowed to rewrite our broadband history

The South African government has made so many promises regarding broadband, even it seems to have lost track of how many it has broken.

With goal posts frequently moved, those in oversight roles have to visit a timeline of broadband promises to keep track of how far behind schedule the country is.

Take SA Connect for example, a broadband policy published on 6 December 2013.

It stated that by 2016, 50% of South Africans would have access to broadband connections of 5Mbps or more.

50% of schools and health facilities would have connections of 10Mbps or better, and 50% of government facilities would have 5Mbps links.

A tender for the first phase of SA Connect only went out on 1 July 2016. It was set to close on 18 July, but the deadline was extended until 8 August.

By 19 October, the SITA board voted to cancel the SA Connect tender, and informed bidders of the decision in November.

You won’t hear from the government about these missed targets, however. When it talks about broadband, the new targets are set for “2020” and “2030”.

SA Connect’s targets for 2020 are that all schools, health and government facilities, and nearly all South Africans must have access to a “broadband connection”.

Deadlines

The most egregious attempts by the government to rewrite history is with respect to the assignment of wireless spectrum and local loop unbundling.

South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital terrestrial TV is intertwined with the release of the spectrum, and the process was meant to be completed by 17 June 2015.

Almost forgotten is the fact that while we missed the International Telecommunication Union deadline of 2015, South Africa’s self-imposed deadline was much earlier.

Our digital migration process began in 2001, and by 2008 Minister of Communications at the time Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri set the migration deadline for 1 November 2011.

South Africa would no longer be broadcasting analogue TV signals at all, said the department.

When you hear that we missed the June 2015 deadline, remember: the original deadline was 1 November 2011.

Wireless network

You may also hear the government using the delayed digital migration as an excuse not to assign sought-after radio frequency spectrum.

However, the process to license additional spectrum to mobile network operators began in 2006.

The regulator and Ministry of Communications dragged its feet for so long, they also scuppered any chance of WiMAX networks rolling out in South Africa.

ICASA has released several invitations to apply for spectrum between 2006 and 2017, all of which have had to be withdrawn – due to “technical problems” or political interference.

Local loop unbundling

The promise to unbundle Telkom’s copper local loop went through similar missed deadlines.

In 2007, LLU committee chair Tshilidzi Marwala said all mechanisms to implement local loop unbundling would be in place by the end of that year, and that it will happen by 2011.

Communications Minister Roy Padayachie confirmed plans to meet the deadline in 2010, but as it creeped closer, the government distanced itself from Marwala’s 2007 statement.

Marwala, who recently became principal elect of the University of Johannesburg, said in 2013 that LLU was a lost opportunity for South Africa.

Taking credit for accomplishments

What makes matters worse is that the government has not only stymied broadband progress in South Africa, it has taken credit for accomplishments it had little to do with.

In its Twenty Years Review launched in 2014, President Jacob Zuma claimed that it was the ANC government which made widespread Internet services in South Africa a reality.

However, the web as we know it today didn’t exist until after 1994.

Furthermore, the government tried multiple times to control the provision of Internet services. Whether it was through preventing competitors to state-owned Telkom from rolling out infrastructure, or blocking the SEACOM cable from landing in 2009, the ANC government can take little credit for our Internet landscape.

While it is fair to give the government credit for what it has done, we must not forget the missed deadlines and lost opportunities – and we cannot allow it to rewrite history to downplay its failures.

This is an opinion piece.

Now read: Why the ANC government can’t read your WhatsApp messages, even if it tried

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The ANC government must not be allowed to rewrite our broadband history