The Department of Communications (DoC) hit news headlines after signing an ICT Industry Competitiveness and Job Creation Compact on 31 July 2011, committing to 100% broadband penetration by 2020 and the creation of one million additional jobs throughout the ICT industry.
The Deputy Minister of Communications, Obed Bapela, also unveiled a South Africa e-readiness report, otherwise known as the e-Barometer.
The DoC said that their e-Barometer “measured about 35 indicators which studied the movement or progress in those indicators. The report also gave us a summary and an analysis outcome of five (5) sectors which were surveyed by the experts appointed by the Department to help us with this work.”
Broadband still lacking
In his speech at the launch of the DoC’s e-Barometer report, Bapela said that the findings demonstrate that South Africa’s broadband internet penetration growth rates are far lower than countries such as Brazil, China and Republic of Korea.
“Broadband infrastructure roll-out will deliver quality services, particularly voice, data and video converged services for the benefit of all,” said Bapela.
“More competition and the implementation of strategies for reducing costs of communication will bring about more opportunities for affordable services. Our plans for broadband networks already prioritize schools and health centres as primary targets and will provide accessibility to other sectors such as SMMEs and government centres.”
This may sound like déjà-vu to many people who have followed the local ICT industry over the past few years.
In 2005 the DoC held two Telecoms Colloquiums (in June and October 2005) where plans were discussed on how to reduce the cost of telecommunications in South Africa and how to increase Internet access in the country.
The preliminary findings in the Working Group’s report as presented at the last DoC Colloquium held on the 11th & 12th of October 2005 outlined measures that would bring down the prices of telecoms in South Africa.
Some of the recommendations included unbundling the local loop, the formation of a broadband task team, prohibit restrictive broadband bit caps, review the radio frequency spectrum plan, permit VANS (Value-Added Network Services operators aka ISPs) to provide their own infrastructure, and for ICASA to regulate access to international cables.
Then Deputy Communications Minister, Padayachie promised the market would start to see the first steps of implementing the working group’s proposals within six to eight weeks of the colloquium. “There will not be another colloquium. It’s time to take action,” said Padayachie.
Fast forward six years and the market is still waiting for the final report and plans from the DoC. The Department of Communications has also not done much to achieve the recommendations from the colloquiums.
In fact, the local telecoms market had to find ways to achieve some of these objectives with the Department of Communications actively opposing them.
VANS (I-ECNS licensees) can now provide their own infrastructure after Altech won a legal battle against the Department of Communications to allow self-provisioning in South Africa.
We also have competition in the international submarine cable market thanks to companies such as SEACOM and Neotel. The two companies had to overcome numerous hurdles placed in their way by the DoC, which actively tried to stop the commercial cable landing on South African shores.
Then communications Director General (DG) Lyndall Shope-Mafole was even quoted as saying that she feels that SEACOM would not contribute to reducing the cost of broadband connectivity.
SEACOM in fact allowed MWEB to realise another of the colloquium suggestions – removing prohibitive bit caps – by providing MWEB with more cheaper international bandwidth, which in turn saw them launching affordable uncapped ADSL services.
The same story all over again
We are now back where we were in 2005, with the DoC making big promises on how it will improve ICT services and broadband in the country. Without detailed plans on how it will be achieved and the political will to back up all the talk, not much will happen.
One can also accept that if there is not a commercial incentive for telecoms providers to roll out broadband services in certain areas, it is unlikely to happen.
World Wide Worx managing director Arthur Goldstuck highlights that the broadband policy framework we have already seen from the DoC shows that not only is the target poorly defined, but the question itself is poorly researched.
“What do we mean by broadband? What do we mean by 100% penetration?” asks Goldstuck.
“Going by what we have heard until now, it appears to mean that everyone will be within a certain distance of a broadband access point, with the broadband definition allowing for EDGE networks to be included in the calculation. That means we are already almost at 100% broadband penetration – an absurdity,” said Goldstuck.
“One gets a powerful impression of targets in this arena being obfuscated to the extent that it is very difficult to measure performance against the target,” said Goldstuck. “The eBarometer released yesterday (4 August 2011) is typical of this confusion and obfuscation. It is outdated and all but unusable, yet presented as evidence of progress. The real progress is coming from the networks themselves, despite the efforts of Government, and not because of their efforts.”
The DoC’s poor track record further sheds doubt as to whether much will change unless the private sector drives the change.