Mobile broadband is waiting for the release of digital dividend

Mobile broadband is the wave of the future. In Africa the lack of cable infrastructure continues to inhibit connectivity, often affecting development. But the mobile smartphone is changing the way people are communicating and solving the problem of rolling out cable networks into the rural and remote areas.

According to the 2014 International Telecommunications Union Broadband Commission report ­­­­­­­­­­­­­“there will be 630 million mobile subscriptions in Africa by the end of 2014, 27% of which will be broadband”.

The report goes further and states that “Africa is an archetypal example where next-generation broadband and cloud-based ICT services have been gaining momentum steadily. All these digital innovations are empowered by Intellectual Property, which plays a central role in the development of broadband infrastructures”.

Through mobile phones the gap between the connected and the unconnected is being bridged every day. The possibility of broadband access to the majority grows stronger each year. Following the rest of the world, mobility in Africa is the principal means of communication. However, unlike the rest of the world, Africa, and South Africa in particular, face enormous challenges in rolling out mobile broadband.

In South Africa the continuing and abysmal broadband policy misadventure hamstrings connectivity and broadband opportunities. One of the key components of a broadband policy must include the framework for the management of the release of the digital dividend which will create a whole new world of broadband communication possibilities.

The digital dividend is the spectrum that will become available after the migration of broadcast signals from analogue to digital television. From about 2005, South Africans have been promised a new and better television signal. The tired excuses for the failure of digital television migration is not only frustrating but also delays the roll-out of true mobile broadband which can only happen when the spectrum formerly used by TV is made available for mobile communication.

And when will the digital dividend happen? It’s anyone’s guess. Even government has no clue about how to deal with policy relating to the digital dividend. As a matter of fact, the Department of Communications is still grappling with understanding the meaning of policy. The “SA: Policy Connect” – the country’s feeble attempt to posit a national broadband policy – is nothing short of disastrous: the absence of broadband policy from the policy document borders on administrative negligence.

Any policy about broadband mobile connectivity must include policy about the use and allocation of the digital dividend. A fundamental consideration is whether, when the policy is finally spelt out, ordinary South Africans will benefit by low-cost communications services or whether corporates will succeed in lobbying government to create high-profit business opportunities for themselves through the use of the publically-owned frequencies.

The freeing up of more spectrum will boost broadband mobile communications, as it is doing in countries where digital television migration has already occurred.

But South Africa should take heed of the warning in the 2014 Broadband Report which says:

“Asymmetric regulation has resulted in an uneven competitive landscape for services. Governments and policy-makers need to review and update their regulatory frameworks to take into account evolving models of regulation. It is vital that every country prioritises broadband policy to shape its future social and economic development and prosperity, emphasising both the supply and demand sides of the market.”

Since 2012 the ITU has annually published broadband reports that reflect what is happening around the world. The lessons from other countries and the general advice in these reports go a long way to assist in the formulation of broadband policy. No country needs to re-invent every aspect of broadband policy. Of course, domestic circumstances and the needs and aspirations of countries differ. That is inevitable. By the same token, no country needs to re-invent a fundamentally and radically novel policy. Mobile broadband roll-out is neither an engineering challenge, nor a complex policy dilemma.

It should also not be industry-led. Industry-led solutions are never in the public interest. The Department of Communications must guard against appointing so-called “policy-experts” who do business or have interests in the communications industry. Their involvement will necessarily impact negatively on the roll-out of mobile broadband connectivity at a time when communications is the epitome of a new world culture.

The turn to digital communications has brought benefits of low cost and widespread connectivity to many countries. Why should we in SA not also enjoy the benefits of low-cost mobile broadband connectivity? To get South Africa truly connected and into the modern world of communication, the freeing up of spectrum through the digital dividend is absolutely necessary. In the meantime, while the Department of Communciations dithers, the country is continuing to anguish over services that have become commonplace in many other countries.



Published in Business Day live 14 November 2014.