Owning the spectrum

The ANC’s policy discussion document on communications, which was released this week, contains proposals that could result in the rationalising of state institutions, which overlap in their mandates.

The policy document proposes the merging of Sentech, the state broadcasting signal distributor, with Infraco, the state broadband infrastructure company, as well as the merging of the Media Development and Diversity Agency with the Universal Services and Access Agency of South Africa.

The merging of Sentech and Infraco seems to be driven by the desire to maximise scarce spectrum.

“The government must set aside spectrum for the provisioning of wholesale services or an open-access network by the [merger of] Sentech and Infraco,” states the document.

Lumko Mtimde, a member of the ANC’s task team set up by its subcommittee on communication and chief executive of the Media Development and Diversity Agency, agreed to comment on the policy discussion document in his personal capacity. He made it clear that his views did not represent the ANC, the state broadcaster or the agency. He is also an SABC board member.

Regarding the merging of Sentech and Infraco, Mtimde said the proposal was based on the need to rationalise state institutions to avoid duplication, overlaps and unnecessary competition in state organs.

When the Mail & Guardian pointed out that neither institution had a great track record of late, he said: “It is not a response to the organisational challenges you are referring to, or intended to fix those problems, as you suggest.

“The merger is intended to maximise the value of scarce or high-demand spectrum. This will assist in ensuring modern communication services are available to all, including government departments, municipalities, rural schools, hospitals, rural clinics, police stations, courts and so forth. It will ensure that they are connected and can provide e-services to the people of South Africa.

“This fits with the priority of the ANC government for rural development. Connecting rural areas will ensure the achievement of full access to high-speed internet networks and will enhance development.”

A few years ago Sentech was in such dire straits that it had to be rescued and loss-making ventures, such as its wireless broadband business, were shut down. Infraco, the brainchild of former public enterprises minister Alec Erwin, was meant to solve South Africa’s high broadband pricing by creating a national backbone that could be made available to all at cost-based pricing, but it has had little measurable impact.

Regarding the merging of the media development and universal services agencies, Mtimde said: “It is a policy proposal having regard of the convergence of technologies [and] the imperatives of the Electronic Communications Act of 2005 in respect of the promotion of universal service and access. I see it as aimed at enhancing the capacity of the agencies to increase the uptake and usage of information and communication technologies, including [print] media and broadcasting.”

Key proposals

  • Transform the department of communications into a new department of information and communication technologies and postal services;
  • Create a national ICT forum from government, industry and civil society;
  • Form a new state entity to provide funding to small, medium and micro enterprises and co-operatives in ICT sector;
  • Regularly review spectrum use in South Africa;
  • Develop a national cyber-security policy;
  • Move towards e-government;
  • Increase population coverage of high-speed internet to 100% by 2030;
  • Provide government financial support to greenfield operators servicing underserviced communities;
  • Make e-skills a compulsory subject in schools;
  • Set up a government database for ICT skills;
  • Create a specialised ICT university;
  • Review empowerment targets in the ICT sector to find reasons why they have not been met;
  • Restructure the SABC to have a public services mandate and not a commercial one;
  • Increase funding to the SABC;
  • Expand the SABC’s offerings into new technologies such as mobile TV; and
  • Review dominant players’ behaviour in the pay-TV market.

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Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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