/ 24 May 2013

Connecting more to the people

The theme of Minister of Communications Dina Pule’s budget vote speech on Tuesday May 21, “connecting people”, reiterates the minister’s commitment to make information and communication technologies relevant to the people of South Africa.

Pule compared the move to information and communications technology (ICT) to the industrial revolution that occurred more than 200 years ago. “The way we work, communicate and live has radically changed in the last two decades. This transformation of our society, our economy and even our political life requires that we rise to these new challenges,” she said.

Pule said that the department’s vision — for all South Africans to have access and skills to ICT services — is essential to the goal of building a prosperous nation outlined in President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address. On Monday she launched a combined new training institution that brings together the Institute for Satellite and Software Applications, the former e-Skills Institute and the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa as one body, to catalyse the spread of ICT skills.

Deputy minister Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams added to this in her speech, saying that the institution will contribute to e-skills delivery at all levels. “This year the institute increased its visibility at a provincial and national level and impacted more than 30 000 South Africans at various levels.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams also said that in the past financial year, the department committed to connecting 1 650 schools to the internet. “To date 854 schools have been connected. This number excludes initiatives by the private sector. We will be connecting 2 000 schools this year. Additionally, to promote access to people with disabilities, a code of practice on people with disabilities, in line with Section 70 of the amended Electronic and Communications Act (ECA), has been developed.”

To ensure the safety of newly skilled ICT users in the country, the department will prioritise the functionality of a cyber-security hub to pool public and private sector threat information. Pule said: “I am finalising a project action plan that indicates targets for the connectivity of public facilities such as schools, health centres, government offices, libraries and police stations.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams linked future policy to South Africa’s past. She said: “Suppression of popular participation of the black majority in areas of ICT is the basis of our meeting today, as we try to correct the past divide and find amicable solutions, which will lead us to our vision of ensuring broadband access for all.”

She said that the hard-won freedom of all South Africans cannot be realised without the right to information, a basic human right.

Extending the reach of broadcasting

Pule said that over the past four years, the department had installed 104 low-power transmitters, which ensured that 1.5-million more people enjoyed their basic human right of access to information, and that the SABC now reaches 94% of South Africans.

Ndabeni-Abrahams also discussed the progress of community radio stations. More than 133 community radio stations are licensed in South Africa and more than 75% of them have received support from the department.

She said the department is implementing a new signal distribution subsidy scheme. “This new subsidy will see signal distribution costs for community radio located in rural and nodal areas being covered in full by the department for the next four years. “Urban based stations’ costs will only be covered up to 70%. Over R6-million has been set aside for this scheme over the next four years.”

Lowering costs

Pule said the department is committed to lowering the cost of communicating. Termination rates between communications providers were dropped from R1.25 to 40c a minute from March this year. “I intend to issue a policy directive to the Independent Communications Authority South Africa (Icasa) on transparent pricing of services such as SMS, voice and data, to ensure market pricing transparency will also ensure that competition is strengthened.”

Icasa is also set to issue a regulation on market definition for wholesale access to premium TV content to address market competition. 

Improvement from state-owned companies

Despite a difficult period, audits of the department’s state-owned enterprises were positive. Pule said: “Having a stable and capable leadership team that has integrity is crucial in our endeavour to improve the service delivery goals of our department. Guided by the desire to improve accountability, we have embarked on a partnership with the auditor general to achieve a clean audit by the department and its state-owned enterprises by 2014.”

Post office-delivering a range of services

The minister apologised to the public for any inconvenience they may have suffered during the South African Post Office’s illegal strike this year, and said the corporatisation of the Postbank is underway. The final product of this process will be a banking licence that enables the Postbank to offer a range of banking products and services, particularly to people in rural areas and townships.

Pule said that in the 12 months to March 2013, the Post Office had opened 50 new offices that have become key service delivery centres. “More than a million South Africans walk through the doors of post offices near where they live to access their social grants,” she said.

To add to the services offered by the Post Office, South Africans can renew their vehicle registration, pay municipal accounts and television licences, as well as receive parcels and deliveries. In the last financial year the post office was responsible for allocating 1.2-million addresses, mainly to people in rural areas.

Success abroad

For the first time, South Africa has been elected to the Council of Administration of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and now chairs its future strategy committee. Additionally, deputy director general Gift Buthelezi said that South Africa has been asked to develop a transport infrastructure for the Southern African Development Community.

He also outlined various ways in which the department has contributed meaningfully to international e-skills forums and digital migration forums.

New broadband policy enables better connection

The public consultation phase on the new broadband policy was closed earlier this month. The department aims to take this policy to Cabinet in June 2013 for approval and finalisation. Pule said: “The finalisation of this policy will pave the way for Icasa to licence the much sought after 2.6GHz and 800MHz spectrums, including the extended digital dividend. “By doing this, we will be increasing network capacity, improving coverage, promoting competition and facilitating black economic empowerment.” 

Licensing the broadband spectrum should enable mobile operations to improve the capacity of their networks. This means that consumers should experience better quality calls and fewer dropped calls.

“Additional areas that will benefit from the roll out of broadband include enterprise development, encouraging the manufacturing of the end user equipment to create jobs in the country, support research and development towards the development of appropriate applications or apps,” said Pule.

A step closer to digital migration

The minister also announced that the digital broadcasting network currently reaches more than 80% of the population. Roy Kruger, technical advisor to the minister, explained that the network — rolled out by Sentech — covers about 81% of the population through terrestrial signal transmitters (towers on the ground rather than satellite).

Because of the dense population, these terrestrial transmitters only cover 28% of the geographical area of South Africa. Kruger said: “From a satellite point of view we are 100% covered. If we had the set-top boxes today, they would work.”

The department has finalised the subsidy plan for poor households supported by qualifying criteria. Kruger said that poorer households, who qualify, will receive a 70% subsidy. Pule said that “the department is ready to implement the set-top box manufacturing strategy which requires 30% of local content as part of the electronic industry development.”

Plans around the control system for set-top boxes have been delayed because the department has been waiting for decisions from e.tv and the free-to-air broadcasters. As a result, Pule said, the department had “taken a decision to review the policy on the set-top box control system as one way of fast-tracking the rollout of digital terrestrial television to make this system non-mandatory.”

In terms of readiness for the migration, Icasa has finalised the broadcasting regulations. The digital terrestrial television roll out target of reaching 84% of the population via terrestrial transmitters will be reached by December 2013, she said.

Pule announced that Sentech will also launch a direct-to-home satellite broadcasting service later this year. To inform the public of what digital migration means, what its benefits are, and what the public will need to have, the department will intensify the implementation of its communications campaigns.

Digital rollout

Kruger provided a clear overview of what digital rollout means. He explained that the world is divided into three regions by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). South Africa falls under region 1, as does Europe). This region has been given until June 17 2015 to complete migration, by which date they are required to have provided set-top boxes to between 90 and 95% of its citizens before analogue transmissions are switched off.

Benefits of digital migration

At present, a broadcasting channel uses 20 units of frequency. When the channel migrates to digital, it will only use two units of frequency. “So there will be a lot of bandwidth free once we’ve migrated to digital — all spare bandwidth,” said Kruger.

This spare bandwidth can be allocated to mobile operators or radio operators. Bandwidth in the 8000MHz frequency range will improve services and is in high demand because it can be transmitted across very long distances, reducing the need for transmission towers.

Additionally, this range of frequency penetrates buildings very easily. Jobs are created by the training of set-top box installers. Already, the department of rural development has identified 13 500 young people who have now been registered on the e-skills database. The new e-skills learning institution has set up a standard curriculum for installation devices in collaboration with the private sector.

This course is a certified course through the Media Information and Communication Technologies (MICT) sector education training authority. Kruger said that it is “recognised by all manufacturers and vendors.” “The first first course will have run by June,” he said.

The department, through the e-learning institution, intends to train 22 000 people over the next 18 months. “We are hoping that at least 1 000 of those trained become entrepreneurs, creating their own companies and employing others. Once broadband is rolled out, you can start producing economic wealth,” said Kruger.

“By taking networks into underserviced areas, you increase people’s access to the internet and this can be a catalyst for developing small businesses.

“People can create content and write application and generate wealth in local and remote areas.

The steps to rolling out digital migration 

The first step is setting up a network that can support the change. Much of this work is already completed. The second step is the manufacturing of set-top boxes. The government will be managing these boxes through a conditional access system card.

This is required so that the government can target messages to specific areas, for example, warning people in a particular community about a coming flood. The government will also need to be able to switch off set-top boxes that have been reported stolen. In light of this, the government needs to know which vendor will be tasked with making the boxes.

Free-to-air broadcasters were tasked with this in December 2012, but the department is still waiting for a decision as it needs to know which vendor will be used so that it can create the conditional access cards.

Roy Kruger, technical advisor to the minister said the department wanted set-top boxes to be manufactured locally to incorporate the 11 official languages and to create jobs locally. The third step is for the government to get set-top boxes into people’s homes.

They would either have a satellite or terrestrial box, depending on their location and needs. Kruger said that “the department needs to subsidise five million households and will subsidise 70%, with the remaining 30% that individuals will have to pay themselves.”

This subsidy will include free antennae and free installation. The South African Post Office will distribute the boxes. Homes applying for a subsidy will need to follow this process:

1. Go to your local post office and get an application form and submit it. Kruger stated: “Initially this will take a couple of days, but soon it will take a matter of minutes.” 

2. The post office will then contact you, and if your subsidy request has been granted you will be required to return to the post office.

3. You will be given a set-top box, antennae, and an installation voucher.

4. The post office will phone an installer for you, and once the set-top box is installed, you sign it off.

5. The installer will then take the signed voucher to the post office, which will then pay the installer.