On track to becoming Africa’s innovation hub

Ebrahim Patel. (Supplied)

Ebrahim Patel. (Supplied)

A few months ago, I opened a new school in a small village in the Eastern Cape and saw an example of technology and its power to transform lives. A young girl was using a computer tablet to learn basic numeracy and potentially to step out of some of the disadvantage of being a student in a poor area with limited teaching skills.

Her classmates were all engrossed in playing with the new machines that were transporting knowledge that once was the preserve of the few. In 1994 there was no such thing as wireless technology, Twitter, Skype, social media and concepts such as blogs and citizen journalism. Today every facet of our lives is wholly enhanced by technology while, at a basic level, we see iPads and Apps and live streaming, among other things, being used widely at schools.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) have changed the game for economies in the 21st century, bringing enormous new potential and sources of innovation to old industries and creating entirely new industries, with new jobs and new investment.

Small businesses can use ICT to compensate for the disadvantage of size and in so doing, help us to build a more inclusive economy. Young people are techno savvy and can drive youth entrepreneurship development though ICT that develops new products that enhance our lives.

Infrastructure for development

To harness the potential, we need to invest in infrastructure that brings the power of the ICT sector to the way we work, govern and play. That is why information and communications technologies feature so strongly in government’s National Infrastructure Plan.

My colleague, Yunus Carrim, Minister of Communications, is driving a vision of universal access to broadband as the foundation on which we can build a digitally inclusive society. The way in which we seek to do so is set out in the National Broadband Policy, Strategy and Plan passed by Cabinet in December 2013. Its overarching target is to ensure that most citizens and households have broadband access by 2020 that will, on average, cost a South African household 2.5% or less of average monthly income.

This will require substantial new investment in laying fibre-optic cables and rolling outsatellite access to hard-to-reach places. But if we do it well, the economic and social returns are substantial. ICT is transforming medicine and education. It is changing the way in which citizens and government interface with each other. It is bringing new elements to the logistics of modern economies, bringing better information to systems of transport, but also to the vital information generated by markets: what is selling, what needs replenishing and where a company can access raw materials or services most efficiently.

In short, smart investment will yield high returns in creating equitable economic development and improving the lives of citizens. For this reason the Presidential Infrastructure Co-ordinating Commission (PICC) has dedicated two of its eighteen identified Strategic Integrated Projects to expanding access to ICT and developing the infrastructure as well as towards the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will allow us to advance human knowledge about the universe and its origins, harnessing the power of information and communications technologies.

Progress in broadband connectivity

In the past five years alone more than 37 000km of fibre-optic cable for broadband have been laid. This has provided the basis for the massive expansion in the ICT sector and for significantly greater and faster access to the Internet by millions of South Africans through fixed-line and mobile connections.

Thus, to meet the targets of the National Broadband Policy, there are reviewable outcomes starting with an average user experience speed of 5Mbps to be reached by 2016 and available to 50% of the population, going up to 90% by 2020. Connecting government facilities would follow a similar path, but with 100% of the facilities accessing speeds of 100 Mbps by 2030. The deadlines for schools and health facilities are more ambitious with government aiming for 100% access at speeds of 10Mbps by 2015, 100% at speeds of 100Mbps by 2020 and 100% at speeds of 1Gbps by 2030.

These are targets we have set for ourselves as Africa’s leading innovation hub. And, we are making progress to achieving this through expansion of underwater sea cable capacity as well as a number of public private partnerships that the PICC is now aligning with the National Infrastructure Plan and its 640 projects in energy, water supply, school building, road networks and health facility upgrades.

We are exploring innovative finding arrangements, from using white space technologies (using the gaps in spectrum between broadcast television channels to provide broadband access) to the establishment of Points of Presence in district municipalities, by extending the Infraco fibre networks and expanding wireless technologies as the mainstay for rapid rollout in rural areas, to better use of the universal service obligations on established license holders in the industry.

Ebrahim Patel is the Minister of Economic Development.

This opinion piece has been paid for and signed off by KPMG and its business partners.