Presented by Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies

Release of temporary spectrum improves connectivity in underserved areas

By Mish Molakeng, (responsible for communications in the Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies)

As I arrive at the Matatiele Community Clinic for my scheduled appointment with Sister Mofokeng, I find her in the middle of an online meeting with colleagues from other parts of the province.

She excuses herself from the meeting so that we can conduct the interview.

She is going to tell me about the impact brought by the release of temporary spectrum in Matatiele, which straddles the border between the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. 

“I’ve seen an improvement in internet connectivity around here. The faster speed of connectivity enables us to transfer patient files, carry out statistical reporting and conduct medical analysis. We are now able to do all of this quickly and more effectively,” she says.

“I must say I didn’t know that the improvement was because of the temporary release of spectrum,” she acknowledges with a laugh.

For community health centres, faster internet connectivity means better prospects for providing quality healthcare services to a greater number of patients.

In March last year Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams gazetted directions that enabled broadcasting and telecoms regulator ICASA to make additional radio frequency spectrum available to operators.

At the time, this was to ensure that mobile network operators would be able to cope with increased higher rates of internet connectivity as a record number of employees started working from home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.    

Matatiele, Kokstad and Mount Fletcher are some of the areas where mobile network operators have deployed this temporary spectrum overcome historical capacity constraints. 

“Improving access to information is at the heart of our deliverables as a department. The reality that we are dealing with and that we are trying to provide solutions for is growing inequality when it comes to accessing information,” says Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams.  

“We all know that access to information can play a transformative role in people’s lives. Therefore, as we celebrate Human Rights month in South Africa, we must remember that universal access to information is a fundamental human right.” 

For entrepreneur Johan Kruger, the owner of a filling station in the busy main road in Matatiele, the additional spectrum has resulted in visible change in the operations of his business.

Previously, he says, operating his point-of-sale device was a nightmare due to poor connectivity.

“Transactions would be routinely declined, and this was a source of endless frustration to us and customers,” says Kruger.

But now he’s seen a visible improvement in transaction speeds.

It’s not only data traffic that has seen an improvement as a result of the release of temporary spectrum, quality on voice calls has also gotten better. 

Mme Mokoena an elderly granny living with her grandchildren, is an active user of voice calls to communicate with her daughters who work in Gauteng.

She too speaks about a better quality in voice calls.

“The network between and Mount Fletcher, and Matatiele used to a big challenge. But now there is improvement,” she says with appreciation in her voice. 

Meanwhile, as part of Covid-19 interventions, Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams is working with her counterparts in the Departments of Basic and Higher Education in a partnership that includes mobile network operators and internet service providers, to make data available for learning purposes.

The companies have approved hundreds of local websites to be zero-rated for educational purposes.

The zero-rated websites include, among others, those of TVET colleges, universities, basic education sites as well as sites that provide information which can help South Africans mitigate the risks that come with coronavirus. 

In addition to more than one thousand websites, which are already zero-rated, there are additional sites which are pending approval, thanks to the intervention of Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Zero rating of telecommunications and data services for specified public services like health, education and public service pronouncements is an important intervention to empower communities and the youth.

Back at the Community Health Centre, Aphiwe Mtongana, an unemployed young man, walks in to access the free Wi-Fi.

“I come here often to access the internet to apply for jobs,” he says.

“The experience is different now. Previously it would take forever to access just one website, sometimes I would even give up. But it’s a lot faster now. I’m hopeful that eventually one of my applications will land me a job,” he says enthusiastically. 

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Release of temporary spectrum improves connectivity in underserved areas