Wednesday, March 04, 2009

South Africa - a national broadband strategy

Calls for broadband strategy

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC), along with South Africa Connect and the Shuttleworth Foundation, will convene a forum on 24 March with the aim of drawing up a framework for a national broadband strategy.

Titled the “National Broadband Forum”, the group states the country needs a “policy framework for a comprehensive national broadband strategy” and that the forum will provide this information.

The forum says ordinary South Africans will not benefit from the impending major broadband infrastructure roll-outs through projects such as Seacom, unless the government adopts a national strategy.

Willie Currie, communications and information policy programme manager at APC, says the forum will draw on the knowledge of various constituencies to look at what should be involved in a national broadband strategy. He says Internet service providers, communications workers, independent content providers, academics, civil society organisations and consumer groups will all be involved in the drafting of a framework for government.

“We will explore various dimensions, like the supply of broadband infrastructure, the broadening of demand (with regards to the content industry), the role of government in stimulating demand for broadband, and existing laws and regulations.”

The forum says SA lags behind other countries with similar levels of development because “there hasn't been a coherent policy framework to guide the development of broadband”.

Currie adds that the proposal will be drawn up following the forum and that it will be taken forward by a “steering group or coalition” who will present it to the new government after the April elections. The forum hopes the new government will “look at the policy framework with fresh eyes and consider the inter-related components needed to develop a coherent national broadband strategy”.

Big failures

Currie said in a statement that managed liberalisation was the “root of the problem” – and that its failure is evident in the lack of competition and high prices of broadband in the country.

He says one solution the government should consider is to “divest its shares in the telecom industry in favour of broad-based black economic empowerment”. He says the solution lies in the transference of its shares in Telkom, Vodacom and Neotel from the departments of communication and public enterprises to the Public Investment Corporation.

He adds that the decision to move Sentech from the SABC was not the right one – and that its various failures prove this.

“The government can return Sentech to the SABC – the experiment of trying to move Sentech beyond its core business as a signal distributor to wireless broadband operator had demonstrably failed.”

According to Currie, “there is value in retaining Infraco as a public wholesale broadband supplier, but its plans of building submarine cables to London and Brazil should be scrapped”. He adds that the development of municipal broadband networks are appropriate ways government can participate in the sector – provided they are structured on open access principles and don't discriminate against market players.

Currie says such strategy changes should be reflected in regulation. “The new government should develop a simple set of principles for a national broadband strategy and use them to amend the Electronic Communications Act to reflect a fully competitive telecom environment.”

Learning from others

The example of the US cannot be ignored, says the forum, stating it was through industry intervention that a broadband strategy came into force.

“In the US, a diverse group of Americans came together to launch a National Broadband Coalition – BB4US – to provide the then president-elect Barack Obama and the incoming US Congress with a policy framework for a comprehensive national broadband strategy.”

The result in the US, according to the forum, is a commitment to next-generation broadband infrastructure and the roll-out of true broadband to every community in America. This would be achieved through a combination of reform, better use of the nation's wireless spectrum, promotion of next-generation facilities, technologies and applications, and new tax and loan incentives.

Currie states: “There is no need for any grand policies – a coherent national broadband strategy will suffice – and government can concentrate on enabling the emergence of a fully competitive sector to expand affordable broadband access for all citizens.”

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