When the Department of Communications (DoC) first announced that it wanted to conduct a broad review of South Africa’s information and communications technology (ICT) policies it was met with scepticism from industry and the media alike.
At the end of the event, when the chairpersons of the various commissions reported what was discussed over the two days (19–20 April 2012), nothing was said that might assuage the sceptics.
The very last presentation of the day left a particularly bad taste when all the Telecommunications commission seemed to have managed was a change of name to the “ICT Ecosystem” commission.
Programme director and deputy director-general of the Department of Communications, Themba Phiri, remarked that the renamed commission, which was chaired by Vodacom’s head of regulatory affairs, Pakamile Pongwana, had “clearly deviated from its mandate.”
Questions from the media about when the commission got its new name and whether it signified a change in its mandate drew a sharp response from Phiri, who seemed to feel that the press was being antagonistic.
“That is a question from the media,” Phiri told delegates. He later answered the question saying that the commission’s mandate hadn’t changed and that it is still a telecommunications commission.
Considering the negativity around the DoC’s “National Integrated ICT Policy Colloquium”, it is understandable that Phiri might feel like they aren’t being given a fair chance.
However, the DoC’s recent past and distant history have ruined the department’s reputation as far as talk shops, colloquia, indabas, and other “engagements” are concerned.
There must be some way out of here
As was pointed out in a previous MyBroadband column published just before the DoC’s National Integrated ICT Policy Colloquium kicked off, we’ve seen all this before.
Government made big promises to the telecommunications industry and the South African public, promises on which they have either back-peddled or haven’t delivered.
Three of the larger broken promises were that of the second network/national operator (SNO), local loop unbundling (LLU), and the migration to digital broadcasting.
Said the joker to the thief
During a process the government called the “managed liberalisation” of the telecoms sector, Telkom was given a five-year monopoly within which to prepare for competition.
This monopoly supposedly came to an end when the SNO, Neotel, launched in 2006, albeit without the unbundling of the local loop being completed.
However, if you believe what Neotel has been saying lately, they were never the so-called SNO.
Perhaps what Neotel meant to point out with such a statement, was that for them to be South Africa’s second national fixed-line operator they needed access to backhaul infrastructure and the local loop, or the “last mile” of copper that connects homes and businesses to the national network.
Neotel was promised the fibre infrastructure of Transnet with which to bootstrap its infrastructure roll-out, but instead ended up having to rent it. Transnet’s old fibre network is now managed by Broadband Infraco, a recently formed state-owned enterprise struggling to get on its feet.
The cost of bandwidth over SA’s national fibre networks is credited as one of the major cost drivers of broadband access. According to industry players this local bandwidth costs more than international bandwidth does.
There’s too much confusion
One of the topics discussed at the DoC’s previous colloquia in 2005 was local loop unbundling. This would effectively give other network operators access to the Telkom’s last-mile copper infrastructure that connects the end-user to its network.
In 2007 the late Minister of Communications Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri told parliament that Telkom would have until 1 November 2011 to unbundle the local loop, effectively extending the incumbent’s monopoly on the last mile by another four years.
Very little progress appeared to have been made in this regard until Roy Padayachie took the helm at the Ministry of Communications at the end of 2010.
Padayachie set the ambitious goal of actually making the November 2011 deadline, resulting in the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) convening hearings to discuss the issue of LLU.
There was no shortage of drama at the hearings, with proceedings being halted for an hour while Telkom and ICASA deliberated privately.
However, rather than actually implementing LLU by the deadline, ICASA only managed to release a document on 30 November 2011 with a list of new deadlines.
To its credit, ICASA has by-and-large met these new deadlines, including introducing a reduction in wholesale ADSL prices by slashing the prices of Telkom’s IPConnect product by 30%.
It would seem that those private deliberations with Telkom generated more tangible results than over a decade of policy-making and deadline-setting had managed to achieve.
One can’t help but look at the majority stake government owns in Telkom (39.8%, plus 10.9% through the Public Investment Corporation) and wonder what South Africa’s telecoms landscape would look like if the entity responsible for setting the policy that dictates the actions of the regulator didn’t have a vested interest in the incumbent fixed-line operator.
I can’t get no relief
The final witness in this session of the court of public opinion is the mess that is South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT).
Switch-off of South Africa’s analogue broadcasting signals was originally scheduled for 1 November 2011 (a popular choice of deadline, it seems).
This is the date by which every South African household was meant to be receiving their television signals digitally so that the old analogue transmissions could be switched off.
With analogue broadcasts no longer taking up so much precious spectrum, a number of frequencies would be freed up that could be used for other things. Mobile network operators are particularly interested in this “digital dividend” to roll out high-speed broadband technology such as Long Term Evolution (LTE).
However, despite the DoC appointing the Digital Broadcasting Advisory Board in 2001, the Digital Migration Working Group in 2005, and the Digital Dzonga in 2010, here we are in 2012 and SA’s digital migration still hasn’t started from the public’s perspective.
One of the reasons for the delay is that during 2010, the DoC under former Minister Siphiwe Nyanda and director-general Mamodupi Mohlala, said that the standard originally selected and formally announced in the Government Gazette was being relooked.
Padayachie, who took over from Nyanda, later admitted that South Africa entertained advances from the Brazillian government and agreed to reconsider the standard for which policies and regulations had been published for years. This re-investigation of the standard of choice caused the delay.
To his credit, Padayachie managed to make the best of a bad situation by using the opportunity to leapfrog a technology generation, officially announcing that SA would adopt the DVB-T2 standard.
This still had an implication for the switch-off deadline however, as Sentech would have to upgrade its existing DVB-T deployment.
Padayachie set the new switch-off date for December 2013, but a new delay in the switch-on of DVB-T2 (caused by an old argument over the set-top box standard) has resulted in the current Minister saying that the analogue switch-off date may be delayed, meaning that the release of the digital dividend would be delayed in turn.
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late
Although there seems to be some progress at the DoC and ICASA, given the history, it is understandable that yet another colloquium was treated with doubt.
The unsatisfying feedback from the commissions, along with the fuzzy outcome of the indaba didn’t help to lend the event credibility either.
Phiri called it the “beginning of the beginning of a process”, while director-general of the DoC, Rosey Sekese laid out the plan of action:
- Further discussion leading to the publications of a “green paper” by the end of the year;
- The publication of an ICT policy “white paper” by the end of next year (2013); and
- Legislation “to follow” in 2014.
When it comes to these kinds of talks, history has taught us that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
From the looks of things however, it’ll be years before we even get a taste of what the new DoC administration is cooking, so it better be some amazing pudding.
In the meantime, a salvage operation on the department’s extensive list of broken promises would go a long way to repair its damaged reputation.