In May, Telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele told Parliament his department is on track to ensure that all South Africans are online by 2020.
Cwele said they need to connect 22 million people to meet the SA Connect and National Development Plan target of universal access to the Internet by the end of the decade.
“The ANC government maintains this enormous target because we know very well that the majority of the unconnected are those marginalised by the apartheid system,” said Cwele.
The truth is that the only way in which the government will reach its ambitious “Internet for all” target is to partner with Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and Telkom.
These networks have already achieved 99% 3G coverage, and 4G/LTE coverage has grown to 75%.
This means that nearly every household in South Africa could access an Internet service.
According to ICASA, the main reasons citizens do not access the Internet are a lacks skills or confidence (38%), a lack of relevant content or the need for use (35%), and the high cost (21%).
The high cost is not only related to the price of data, but also the price of equipment.
Most of these failings can be laid at the feet of the government. High unemployment, the poor education system, and an unstable currency all contribute to poor Internet use in SA.
Certain connectivity problems can be solved through a constructive relationship with the mobile operators, but, alas, the government has other ideas.
Cwele is still punting his department’s ill-conceived Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN) – a concept which has not been proven anywhere in the world.
He is also maintaining the ICT Policy White Paper’s proposal that all high-demand spectrum should be used for this network.
The White Paper has even threatened that mobile operators may have to return their current spectrum.
So instead of working with the operators and providing them with the tools to provide fast and affordable broadband access, it is working against them.
The government has already blown billions in taxpayers’ money on failed Internet-for-all projects, and has been a hindrance rather than an enabler to better broadband access.
It is hard to forget the government’s attempts to block the SEACOM and EASSy cables from landing in South Africa, and prevent companies from building broadband networks for a decade.
The WOAN is another example of how the ANC government is trying to run telecommunications, where it has failed spectacularly in the past.
It is time for the ANC government to realise that its only hope to connect all South Africans is through a partnership with the major operators.
Give these partners what they are asking for to do their job, and then step back and let them get on with it.
This is an opinion piece.