SA CONNECT – POLICY ABOUT POLICY

What is happening to broadband roll-out for all in South Africa? When will we get it? Where is the timeline? Will it be affordable for all? Will it be a high-speed network that spreads the benefits of access at low cost to the majority of the population? Where’s the real plan, Mr Minister?

We have a 61-page “policy” documented in the Government Gazette. All words and no milestones in Appendix 3 which simply sets out bland indications of what is to be done. Here we have a blatant admission that nothing real has been done on policy formulation. The work, objectives and milestones are still to be formulated. Now, surely this cannot be the country’s broadband policy. It is policy about policy.

According to South Africa Connect, which is the country’s national broadband policy, we have to wait until 2030. By this date “a widespread communication system that will be universally accessible across the country at a cost and quality that meets the communication of citizens” will be in place.

This is cold comfort for millions of people who are unconnected and the millions who are connected but cannot afford the high cost of the services offered by the operators. Many millions of school children will continue to be deprived of the most basic service that can assist them. For a child who starts school in 2015, by the time she leaves school a national affordable broadband network will still not be in place.

The policy correctly identifies the lack of always-available, high-speed and high quality bandwidth required by business, public institutions and citizens has impacted negatively on the country’s development and global competitiveness. You have only to look at the latest September 2014  report of the Broadband Commission of the International telecommunications Union and the UNESCO to see how badly SA fares among in the world of broadband.

The report, released in September 2014, makes wide-ranging recommendations to countries which are targeting broadband access for citizens. The report covers education, gender equality, infrastructure and sustainable development, among others. In reviewing developments around the world – in the developing and developed countries – the report distils the lessons for successful broadband development.

South Africa is a member of the ITU and has access to all its documents and the experiences of broadband development around the world yet its policy does nothing for the development of broadband. Its self-criticisms are devastatingly accurate and the Department of Communications is to be complemented for its honesty. Here is one of many examples found in the SA Connect policy document:

“Significant growth in the ICT sector over the last decade has not been accompanied by the realisation of the primary policy objective of affordable access for all to the full range of communications services that characterises modern economies.”

The alleged policy document claims the priorities of electronic communications will be finally implemented by 2030. Is government seriously asking the country to wait for 2030 for universally accessible broadband at a cost and quality that meets the needs of citizens.

Government says one of the factors that will lay the foundations for South Africa’s future broadband success “policies that constrain the competitiveness of markets and the rolling out of broadband will be removed”. And, what are these constraining policies? The SA Connect policy document is silent.

The DoC says that it will issue a directive to ICASA to expedite the assignment of assignment of broadband spectrum. However, the assignment of broadband spectrum is not the main issue. The issue is to whom will this spectrum be issued? The second problem is: will the beneficiary of the assigned spectrum be in the game for profit or for the public interest.

This is the nub of the matter. While public-partnerships have a role to play in the roll-out of broadband, a profit motive is an effective brake on the roll-out and does not assist in spreading the benefits of broadband. The move to an open access national broadband network is of little benefit if an over-riding public interest element in the roll-out and in access to connectivity are wanting.

The SA Connect policy document is riddled with phrases like “the Minister of Communications will consider…” , “the DoC will prepare a detailed roadmap …”, “consideration will be given …”, “there will be incentives for …” are strong indicators that this is more a document about policy than it is a policy document. The policy document is one which records a broad intention at no particular time and no milestones are identified.   Nowhere does the Minister actually say what he will do in reality.

The DoC says “reviewable targets have been set starting with an average user experience speed of 5 mbps to be reached by 2016 and available to 50% of the population and to 90% by 2020”.

The policy document does not take us into its confidence about how the country will achieve an average user experience of 5 mbps by 2016. Nor does it tell us what the cost of this access will be for the average person. We are given no clues about how the government intends to reach these goals, what the development cost will be and what citizens can expect to pay for access to a high-speed broadband network. We have a surfeit of nice-sounding words and a worrying lack of very important detail.

As an example, Appendix 3 of the policy document is instructive. It identifies targets without a single date, without reference to any timeline and focuses on broad and general principles that, without specificity, have little meaning.

No one would complain if government set modest and achievable targets – in our lifetime – so that we can at least enjoy limited low cost, high-speed access in some areas that gradually spread to the rest of the country. Even that is avoided in SA Connect.

At the beginning of this article several questions were raised. SA Connect national broadband policy takes a view so broad that it can answer any question about broadband in a manner that gives no specific answer. Look again at the SA Connect policy document, in particular at Appendix 3, the National Broadband Network Roadmap.

Here you will find anything but a roadmap. You will see words like “planning input”, “broadband demand model”, “economic models”, “desktop and other activities”, various references to “modelling” “future network architecture” and so on. You will even see the word “timeline” but nowhere will you actually see a timeline. After reading the policy about policy you will experience profound anxiety and an inability to understand whether affordable high-speed broadband is a service that will be available during your lifetime.

The SA Connect policy is an example of a policy reflecting failure and apathy; it reflects how deeply government misunderstands its role in developing broadband. The so-called citizen-centric policy approach, which it posits, is a complete disconnect with the priorities for broadband and its development around the world.

In effect, we have a “no connect” policy and the South African broadband policy is really more about words than action.

1 October 2014, Business Day Live http://t.co/FyIxEOzIt3

Ayesha Dawood is an Africa Expert, International Law, Corporate Law and Digital Media lawyer at Ayesha Dawood Attorneys (@ConsultAyesha)  She is also MD of Digitalnfo.com.   (Digitalnfo) a not-for-profit site that is designed to contribute to understanding the digital environment and its implications.