Government's ICT policy is slowly strangling SA
In a country where textbooks are routinely not delivered to thousands of schools, public hospitals are struggling to keep running and millions live in poverty, information and communications technology (ICT) might not seem like a priority. But the department of communications, which oversees ICT, is doing incalculable long-term damage to our economy.
In a recent presentation to Parliament, Communications Minister Dina Pule listed the ministry's top five priorities for ICT as "broadband, broadcasting digital migration, e-skills, the successful launch of Postbank, and an information and communications technology (ICT) policy review".
Those sound sensible enough, until you unpack them. Making broadband a priority is meaningless unless you make radio spectrum reallocation an equally important priority. The cheapest, fastest and most practical way to bring broadband to South Africa's widely dispersed population is wirelessly, but the country's wireless operators are struggling to service the market using existing spectrum allocations.
One can imagine radio spectrums to be like invisible highways in the sky. Each one can carry a certain amount of traffic (information) before it gets full. Trying to add any more traffic creates traffic jams and collisions (interference) in which competing signals clash and cancel each other out. If you ever experienced a dropped cellphone call or had your 3G signal suddenly disappear for no reason, you know how disruptive this can be.
The communications department, the traffic officer in charge, spent the better part of a decade dithering over and delaying a much needed overhaul of spectrum allocation.
A case in point is the ministry's second priority: broadcasting digital migration. South Africa's terrestrial television channels use up an enormous chunk of the spectrum because the analogue broadcasting technology used is extremely inefficient compared to the digital equivalent. Essentially, a handful of enormous ox carts are being dragged along a highway which could support thousands of modern vehicles.
But what sounds like a sensible priority rings hollow when you consider that the original deadline for this migration was November 2008. The new deadline is mid-2015 but due to unnecessary legal wrangling that deadline is also likely to be missed.
Seven years is a lifetime in fast-moving industries such as ICT. Every month of delay keeps millions of South Africans disconnected from broadband and costs operators even more in potential revenue.
To make matters worse Pule does not seem to appreciate the interconnected nature of these issues. The widest possible access to broadband is dependent on spectrum allocation, which is in turn dependent on digital broadcasting migration. Why else would Pule make spectrum allocation a "lesser priority" in favour of yet another policy review?
In the department's most recent strategic plan, posted online in August 2012, Pule boasted that South Africa's ICT industry is "the twentieth-largest in the world, accounting for 0.5% of worldwide ICT revenue." Ironically Pule also highlighted the need for the "better use of resources like radio spectrum and broadband".
But the report failed to mention that South Africa's ICT sector lags well behind the rest of the world's in terms of share of gross domestic product (GDP). Between 2010 and 2012 the sector accounted for around 7% of GDP in South Africa compared to 8.5% in Brazil.
South Africa badly needs economic growth to make a dent in its debilitating unemployment rate. By crimping growth in ICT, the department is denying jobs to tens of thousands of South Africans. This is not about making a few technology barons richer – it is about growing the economy for everyone.
For proof of this we just need to look north. ICT is proving to be a major driver of growth in Africa, accounting for 24% of Kenya's total GDP growth between 2000 and 2010. By comparison, South Africa's ICT sector has only managed to keep up with the relatively sluggish pace of rest of our economy.
The government's national planning commission has reported that we are not keeping pace with other African countries such as Senegal. The report continued: "South Africa's ranking on the ITU ICT Development Index has slipped from 72nd in 2002, to 92nd in 2008."
This decline is a direct result of the department's failure to timeously and properly regulate the sector. Vital issues such as local loop unbundling – which would force Telkom to allow competitors to access its network of phone lines – number portability and interconnection tariffs have languished for years without being properly addressed.
To embark on a lengthy policy review when there are urgent regulatory matters screaming for attention seems obtuse at best and intentionally obstructive at worst.
There would be no denying that Pule is in charge of one of government's most challenging portfolios. But she has the power and the mandate to change South Africa's business landscape with a few strokes of the pen. All that is needed is the political will to follow through.