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Bail out SABC, build broadband or deliver on digital migration?

Right now the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is hogging bandwidth about priorities for the new Minister of Communications, Siphiwe Nyanda.

He’ll soon have to tell Treasury whether he backs the broadcaster’s call for a R2-billion bail-out.

But he’ll also need to look at two other causes putting pressure on the public purse. These are: promoting broadband internet, and dealing with digital migration.

Government support for internet roll-out is being championed by a coalition called the SA National Broadband Forum. Earlier this year they drew up a petition to go to Minister Nyanda. So far, they’ve amassed support from 1 601 individuals and 223 organisations.

According to the forum, broadband internet is an essential facility alongside other basic services such as water, sewerage and electricity, and access should be a public right. In their view, it’s also a proven recipe for an increase in GDP.

The forum proposes that broadband be defined as four megabits per second (download speed). That’s a velocity which — for now — means that users could receive pretty good-quality video streams online.

All kinds of nice things will result, according to the forum — like flourishing content production and multilingualism; major strides in e-governance, e-citizenship, healthcare and education.

Their call is that ”The government needs to bring all stakeholders into alignment behind the strategy so as to reach the goal of affordable broadband for all.”

In fact, there is already the Presidential National Commission on the Information Society and Development (PNC-ISAD), which is part of Nyanda’s Department of Communications. This body is supposed to be doing exactly what the forum is now proposing.

But it came under fire in Parliament last week for its lack of concrete targets and progress. MPs in the portfolio committee on communications queried whether the PNC-ISAD should be relocated to the Presidency.

Their assumption, as with the approach of the Broadband Forum, is that a central governmental push is needed to unlock the information society. In these views, the responsibility for rolling out broadband internet falls to the new Developmental State.

But from a different perspective, the courts last year ruled that Altech and many other players can now set up infrastructure for broadband — so why can’t interested parties get on with it without government help?

After all, we’re talking about many efforts creating a patchwork of phone lines, micro-wave links, satellite, cellphone signals and special cables — whatever links people to the internet.

In this perspective, Altech, cellphone companies, Telkom and Neotel, broadcasters, internet service providers, municipalities, etc, should simply proceed at pace to create a veritable broadband cloud.

There’s some truth in all this, but research suggests that Japan, South Korea and Sweden have the world’s highest broadband deployment thanks to their governments’ involvement.

That includes open-network policies, subsidies, tax breaks and paying municipalities to roll out networks.

Government incentives
In similar vein, the Broadband Forum wants government incentives to encourage the growth of broadband pipes, applications and services, and for directing these to rural areas and social causes like health.

The forum doesn’t spell out what this would cost, but ultimately their vision will compete with another major communications initiative: digital migration.

Tons of taxpayer money is already being spent on the transfer of terrestrial TV broadcasting from analogue to digital systems. By 2011, government will probably have spent more than R5-billion on it all.

Significantly, the subsidised set-top boxes will include an internet link (assuming there is available and affordable access). In other words, digital broadcasting and internet access are complementary issues, not entirely separate universes.

Where they also link up is in regard to which should be the preferred cause for government support — and which can be left to the marketplace? In short, should Nyanda prioritise building broadband or developing digital broadcasting? Or rescuing the SABC?

One answer lies in the differing utility to citizens. In countries like South Korea and the US, broadband networks are mainly used for entertainment — music downloads and gaming. But such services can be delivered by digital broadcasting, with internet only being used as a return path when needs be.

If most South Africans mainly want to watch video or need to download government forms, then fully fledged internet interactivity is not a primary requirement. Likewise, much school education can also be — and is being — delivered by unidirectional broadcasting rather than via the internet.

In addition, it certainly seems comparatively simpler to bring South Africans (a functioning) SABC via digital broadcast transmissions rather than through interactive broadband.

So who then really needs top-speed internet interactivity and global connectivity? The answer, probably, is: institutions, rather than individuals — and especially those in research and higher education, or in businesses with international dealings.

In this light, my bet is that the government will prioritise support for the SABC first, with digital migration second.

Sad to say, broadband internet will probably come a late third — meaning that if its roll-out depends on government subsidy, then connectivity for your average South African will be a distant prospect.

On the other hand, the market has delivered a measure of affordable and available telephony to the masses. We can only hope the same could happen for broadband.

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