Get­ting SA prop­erly con­nected South Africa’s ICT ser­vices leave much want­ing. Why does SA lag be­hind other African coun­tries and what needs to be done to get our citizens con­nected?

Finweek English Edition - - OPINION - Ed­i­to­rial@fin­ Pro­fes­sor is a pol­icy fel­low at the In­sti­tute of Race Re­la­tions.

are­cent trip with my im­me­di­ate fam­ily to my mother’s home vil­lage, Guyuni (for­merly Venda), in Lim­popo, pro­vided a stark il­lus­tra­tion of South Africa’s fail­ure to achieve uni­ver­sal ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy (ICT) ser­vices. There is no fixed telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions line in this vil­lage. There is, how­ever, a sem­blance of mo­bile con­nec­tiv­ity, but it’s not re­li­able and each time I (or my wife or four kids) needed an in­ter­net con­nec­tion, or wanted to make a mo­bile bank­ing trans­ac­tion, I had to drive for about 30km. As a mem­ber of the up­per-mid­dle class, I am able to un­der­take a 60km trip to ac­cess the in­ter­net, but un­for­tu­nately my mother and most of her fel­low Guyuni res­i­dents don’t have this as an op­tion. Even where res­i­dents oc­ca­sion­ally se­cure a mo­bile con­nec­tion and ac­cess ICT ser­vices, the costs of such ser­vices are ridicu­lously high, par­tic­u­larly for house­holds that rely mostly on so­cial grants for a liv­ing.

Back in Jo­han­nes­burg’s leafy suburbs where I live and work, one would have ex­pected the mo­bile con­nec­tiv­ity to be world class, but un­for­tu­nately that’s also not the case. The qual­ity of cell­phone ser­vices in SA leaves much to be de­sired, yet the rates charged for some ser­vices are among the most ex­pen­sive in the world.

Twenty one years from the in­cep­tion of democ­racy, SA re­mains far from achiev­ing uni­ver­sal ac­cess to telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. Uni­ver­sal ac­cess pol­icy in the country is char­ac­terised by three prin­ci­ples, as con­tained in the Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Act of 1996: avail­abil­ity (which re­quires na­tional cov­er­age of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices); ac­ces­si­bil­ity (which de­mands that all users are treated alike, and that there is non-dis­crim­i­na­tion in re­la­tion to price, ser­vice qual­ity ir­re­spec­tive of lo­ca­tion, and race); and af­ford­abil­ity (which re­quires that voice and data ser­vices should be priced so that most users can eas­ily af­ford them).

The fail­ure to achieve uni­ver­sal ac­cess to SA can be at­trib­uted to two fac­tors: govern­ment’s com­mer­cial par­tic­i­pa­tion in the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions mar­ket, and poor pol­icy for­mu­la­tion and im­ple­men­ta­tion.

The par­tic­i­pa­tion of govern­ment in the ICT mar­ket was bol­stered through the Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Act, which gave Telkom exclusive rights to pro­vide net­work in­fras­truc­ture and fixed­line oper­a­tions. The govern­ment had as­sumed that Telkom would use its exclusive right to roll out ICT in­fras­truc­ture na­tion­ally with­out wor­ry­ing about com­pe­ti­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, Telkom did not do this and to date we are suf­fer­ing the con­se­quences of un­com­pet­i­tive be­hav­iour. Govern­ments sel­dom learn from past mis­takes and our govern­ment thus es­tab­lished an­other paras­tatal, Broad­band In­fraco, to par­tic­i­pate in the mar­ket. Broad­band In­fraco has made very lit­tle progress in pro­vid­ing in­fras­truc­ture to un­der­ser­viced ar­eas. More­over, in 2015, Telkom was given an exclusive man­date by govern­ment to roll out broad­band in­fras­truc­ture in eight district mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties. I doubt if this project will be de­liv­ered on time and within bud­get. In or­der to fast-track uni­ver­sal ac­cess, the govern­ment in­tro­duced a num­ber of ini­tia­tives:

The Lo­cal Loop Un­bundling scheme (LLU), to en­able sev­eral op­er­a­tors to share the same con­nec­tion from the same tele­phone ex­change (the phys­i­cal ca­ble con­nec­tion be­tween the cus­tomer and op­er­a­tor is called the “lo­cal loop” and is owned by Telkom); The Broad­cast­ing Dig­i­tal Mi­gra­tion scheme (BDM), to free up the broad­cast­ing spec­trum and to al­low more play­ers to en­ter the mar­ket by mi­grat­ing SA’s broad­cast­ing sys­tem from ana­logue to dig­i­tal;

The Uni­ver­sal Ser­vice Agency (USA), to pro­mote uni­ver­sal ac­cess to ICT ser­vices;

The Un­der­ser­viced Area Li­cence (USAL), to ac­cel­er­ate the pro­vi­sion of ICT in­fras­truc­ture in ru­ral ar­eas; and

The Thu­song Ser­vices Cen­tres (TSCs), to serve as one-stop cen­tres for pri­mar­ily ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties to ac­cess de­vel­op­ment telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and some govern­ment ser­vices.

The im­ple­men­ta­tion of the above poli­cies has not met with much suc­cess. The LLU, and USAL, failed dis­mally, while the im­ple­men­ta­tion of other poli­cies is ex­ces­sively slow, very costly and fraught with man­age­rial prob­lems.

To turn the sit­u­a­tion around, South African pol­i­cy­mak­ers should look north­wards. SA can learn a great many lessons from the ICT poli­cies of Kenya, Mau­ri­tius and Rwanda. Th­ese coun­tries sub­scribed to the Gen­eral Agree­ment on Trade Ser­vices, which trig­gered a move to lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions mar­ket, and then pur­sued uni­ver­sal ac­cess pol­icy ac­cord­ing their own coun­sel. Fur­ther re­search is re­quired to un­earth their ex­pe­ri­ences and doc­u­ment this.

The emerg­ing les­son out of Africa seems to be that in­creased ac­ces­si­bil­ity to telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion­sre­lated ser­vices is best achieved through com­pet­i­tive mar­ket forces and not through the govern­ment reg­u­la­tion and mo­nop­o­lies, or flip-flop­ping poli­cies.

The fail­ure to achieve uni­ver­sal ac­cess to SA can be at­trib­uted to two fac­tors: govern­ment’s com­mer­cial par­tic­i­pa­tion in the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions mar­ket, and poor pol­icy for­mu­la­tion and im­ple­men­ta­tion.

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