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Oct 25, 2013

Carrim unveils ambitious broadband plan

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Communications Minister Yunus Carrim
Photo: Duane Daws
Communications Minister Yunus Carrim
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South Africa’s new “ambitious” broadband plan may “not yet [be] perfect”, but the Department of Communications (DoC) was planning to publish the document in the public domain in the first week of December, Communications Minister Yunus Carrim said on Friday.

The much-revised draft plan was unveiled to participants in the final consultation workshop on the long-awaited National Broadband Policy, in Pretoria, prior to its submission to Cabinet for approval.

The DoC last year initiated the development of the National Broadband Policy as part of its move to transform the country’s information and communication technology (ICT) sector’s inadequate policies in an effort to fast-track South Africa’s broadband backbone and access infrastructure, particularly within rural and underserved areas, as well as to meet the country’s vision of broadband for all by 2020.

The draft plan aimed to deliver broadband at a minimum speed of 5 Mb/s to 50% of South Africa’s population by 2015. By 2020, the department envisaged 100% access at a minimum speed of 5 Mb/s, with about 50% of the population able to access speeds of up to 100 Mb/s.

By 2030, 100% of the population was expected to have access to a minimum speed of 10 Mb/s, while 80% was expected to access speeds of up to 100 Mb/s.

The connection of government facilities would follow a similar path, but with 100% of the facilities accessing speeds of 100 Mb/s by 2030.

The plan’s strategy of connecting schools and health facilities was more ambitious, with government aiming for 100% access at speeds of 10 Mb/s by 2015, 100% at speeds of 100 Mb/s by 2020 and 100% at speeds of 1 Gb/s by 2030.

Research ICT Africa director Dr Alison Gillwald, who outlined the new draft policy to the workshop, said that, currently, 33.7% of South Africa’s 50-million plus population had Internet access, while 25% of schools and only 13% of the nation’s health facilities were connected. The current percentage of government facilities connected was not disclosed.

However, citing the success of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) South African National Research Network (Sanren) high-speed network, which had connected hundreds of research and educational sites and was used by over 700 000 people a day, she believed it could be done.

The investment in Sanren had reduced Internet costs for participating institutions by a factor of more than ten. The Department of Science and Technology earlier this year committed about R600-million over the next five years to more than double the international bandwidth of Sanren.

The CSIR was currently evaluating tenders for the provision of services and networks for Sanren Phase 2.3, which involved the further extension of the network backbone and the establishment of metropolitan fibre-optic networks in some smaller metropolitans and municipalities.

Meanwhile, speaking at the workshop, Carrim said the realisation of the policy’s ambitions was not going to happen overnight, but the industry should adopt the proposed plan as a national project, much in the same way that the nation rolled out the preparations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

He cautioned, however, that the new policy was not perfect, may be too ambitious and funding remained a concern, but it needed to be released urgently and, if needed, could be tweaked in a year or so, as it was not the final strategy or plan.

A broadband plan for a “digital South Africa” was urgently required and the time to talk was now over, he stressed.

“We can’t have endless consultations, we need to move,” he stated, noting that other African countries were moving on their broadband plans at “lightning speed” and South Africa needed to do the same.

The DoC’s earlier draft broadband policy, which was intended to facilitate growth, did not adequately deal with a number of challenges, including market structure and the regulatory environment.

Gillwald said that, since the development of one of the first broadband plans over 20 years ago, the country had seen a shift from an infrastructure approach to a user centric model encompassing a complex ICT ecosystem.

The draft plan would present a long-term strategy that was "immediately institutionable" and would catalyse connectivity in South Africa, leveraging existing networks and their expansion through public–private collaboration.

Meraka Institute executive director Laurens Cloete said that implementing a complicated and costly project required a common roadmap that guided the actions and investments of the public and private sector players over the next 10 to 20 years.

“An environment conducive to private sector investment will be created through enabling policy and regulation and through the certainty and clarity this policy provides,” he said.

Besides various existing provincial baselines, parliamentary appropriations and public and private funding sources, the DoC planned to engage other government departments to explore further funding.

The draft policy was also aligned with enabling open-access at the “lowest possible level”; the pooling and sharing of existing networks; building future networks through a consortium model; developing complementary roles for government and State-owned enterprises; and initiating spectrum-sharing or pooling through the creation of a national open-access wireless network.

The new proposed broadband plan would be realised through four complementary strategies, namely digital readiness, digital development, digital future and digital opportunity.

Digital readiness would lay the foundations for South Africa’s broadband future through policy and regulatory frameworks and institutional capacity, while digital development would see government, through aggregation of public sector demand, address the needs and ensure sustainable roll-out.

To build the digital future, Cloete said, was a roadmap for public and private investment in the next-generation broadband networks.

This would lead to the realisation of digital opportunity, which would ensure that South Africa harnessed the benefit of broadband based on skills, research and development and innovation, entrepreneurship, and the development of relevant content and application.

Edited by: Chanel de Bruyn
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