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Harnessing South Africa’s digital potential

Minister of Communications Yunus Carrim told a recent GIBS Forum that South Africa is rapidly running out of time to catch up with the rest of the world’s advances in information and communication technology.

“If we don’t connect with the new digital world, we as a country are going to be left far behind and our prospects for growth, development and job creation will be substantially reduced.”

Carrim, discussing the topic of unlocking the potential of the digital economy, said that the Department of Communications is on the cusp of a major review of the country’s ICT policy, with a Green Paper due to go to Cabinet for review on 4 December 2013. The last review of the country’s information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure was 18 years ago, in 1996, which Carrim admitted in ICT terms “is thousands of years.”

“ICT has huge potential to ensure inclusive growth and development in our country, but we really have to get our act together. We don’t have the time or the luxury of endless discussions.

“If we don’t catch up with the rest of the world the consequences within our country will be hugely explosive - the digital divide between the connected and the not-connected will increase, exacerbating existing social inequalities,” Carrim said.

The Department hopes to pass a new legislative dispensation for the sector during the course of 2014.

While Africa still lags behind the rest of the world in Internet and broadband penetration, things are certainly changing.

According to the Internet World Stats figures on connectivity rates in Africa, Nigeria has the most Internet users on the continent, followed by Egypt, Morocco and Kenya.

The organisation explains that growth in Africa’s Internet and broadband sector has accelerated in recent years due to improvements in infrastructure, the arrival of wireless access technologies and lower tariffs.

Broadband is rapidly replacing dial-up as the preferred method to access the Internet, with the process already nearly complete in Africa’s more developed markets.

The installation of the Seacom broadband submarine cable system along the eastern and southern African coastlines has brought a vast supply of high quality and affordable Internet. Since going live in July 2009, the cable has allowed for substantial increases in bandwidth penetration in several of Africa's most underserved nations.

Africa is the world’s most rapidly growing market for mobile telephony, and mobile cellular communications have vast potential as many people access the Internet through cell phones as they become ‘smart’: “The increasing access to broadband links and the decreasing cost of access through smart phones means that people on our continent will be able to access the internet, as well as produce and consume information far more,” Carrim said.

However, he pointed out that the market for data is “fast becoming a money-spinner” and will need to be regulated, as were the cost of voice calls on cellular networks.

Carrim explained that while the digital economy has huge potential for reducing inequality and creating economic development growth and opportunities, it has just as much potential for increasing the divide.

“We want the poor to benefit and the cell phone has enormous potential. The bottom 25 million of South Africa’s population can be lifted out of poverty by the effective use of information as a tool,” Carrim said.

To this end, the main aim of broadband is to reach the poor and access to broadband is the next challenge for Carrim’s department, he explained.

The Department of Communication’s draft broadband policy, SA Connect - Creating opportunities and ensuring inclusion, is a vision of a wide-spread communications system which will underpin a connected, vibrant and dynamic information society and knowledge economy that is more equitable, inclusive and prosperous by 2030, Carrim said.

The policy is a four-pronged strategy, which allows for digital readiness; digital opportunity; digital development and digital future. 

In terms of timeline for implementation, Carrim said that while the National Development Plan commits the government to 100% broadband access by 2020, that is a mere seven years away and a tall order. “It is unrealistic to expect miracles,” he said.

The objective of SA Connect is to create opportunities and ensure inclusion, Carrim said. Furthermore, he explained that the government was “looking towards an ecosystem of digital networks, services applications, content and devices which will be firmly integrated into the economic and social fabric of the country.”

These broadband elements are to provide an enabling platform for economic enterprise, active citizenship and social engagement and participation. They must promote economic growth and competitiveness and strengthen social cohesion.

The policy states that affordable broadband must meet the diverse needs of the different sectors of society and allow for efficient public service delivery, including e-government services.

“We must develop our infrastructure to focus on e-government and encourage openness and participation through government and private sector collaboration. We as government need greater connectivity with our citizens for our own services,” he said.

Competition is to come through the provision of services and not of infrastructure, Carrim said. Public and private sector players must contribute to providing services, with different government departments working together for economies of scale.

“We want more competition from those who can’t afford to set up their own infrastructure, and we don’t want continual diggings in every municipality as different service providers set up their networks, Carrim said. “We need to make use of economies of scale and an open access network must be the backbone of our ICT system.”

With regards to the persistently high cost of broadband in South Africa, Carrim said that government couldn’t interfere in pricing, as that is the role of the independent regulator ICASA. The Green paper proposes a review of the regulator’s role.

Communication is now considered a fundamental human right, much like water or electricity. Globally, countries that build knowledge and information societies are the ones that invest in research and development in their ICT sectors, Carrim said.   Government, private sector and civil societies must forge strong partnerships that are oriented towards the advancement of their countries and the development of their communities he concluded.

“The world we are living in is changing rapidly, and we as South Africans, not just in government, need to do more to be prepared to take full advantage of technological changes to improve the quality of life of our fellow countrymen and women.”

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