Sunday, June 12, 2011

South Africa - New minister beginning to sort out problems

[financial mail] Communications minister Roy Padayachie has been in the job only seven months but has already made progress in sorting out some of department’s most vexing problems.

For instance, he has brought clarity on whether the country will convert to the South Korean and Brazilian version of the digital broadcast standard or adopt the European one. This was after his predecessor, Siphiwe Nyanda, and the department’s then director-general, Mamodupi Mohlala, had decided to review the whole process, though SA had already made international and regional commitments on the migration.

He wasted no time in picking the European standard soon after his appointment and made it clear in his budget speech last week that converting SA from analogue to digital is his most pressing priority.

About 11m of the country’s TVs will have to get set-top boxes to convert the signal before the analogue system is turned off in December 2013.

The department’s resolve to convert the signal is clear; Padayachie says an office will remain open around the clock to guide the conversion process.

Government views the conversion to digital TV and the information, communications & technology (ICT) sector in general as important in reaching its target of creating 5m jobs by 2020. The manufacturing of the set-top-boxes , for instance, will boost the local electronics industry. Allied Technology (Altech) and consumer electronics group Ellies are planning to set up about 20000 small businesses to install the set-top boxes.

This forms part of Padayachie’s vision of the ICT sector increasing its contribution to the economy from the projected R187bn this year to R250bn in 2020. The hope is that it will create 150000 jobs.

Padayachie has said the freeing up of broadcast spectrum will create more jobs in the long term as it will increase the number of available broadcast channels. “SA will grow accustomed to having choices, as the number of channels [on the SABC] will go from three to 10,” he has said.

Without the restriction of a limited amount of radio spectrum, Padayachie has said, digital broadcasting will open up opportunities in rural areas and also create a platform for community-based TV. “Content generation is the industry of the future.”

This vision looks promising but it needs a healthy and well-run public broadcaster to provide a base for the growth of the industry. The problems the SABC has had in paying independent producers and keeping its own house in order could stymie this.

Padayachie is not blind to this. He has said this is why he is looking at a new policy framework for the SABC. “The last time we looked at policy around public broadcasting was in 1994 — the world has changed since then,” he said recently.

The minister has said any new policy will, among other things, look at different ways to fund the SABC. Already he has made it known that one source of funding is under threat. “ You can’t have a public broadcaster that is funded by advertising.”

Advertising and sponsorships made up R2,3bn of the SABC’s revenue of R4,7bn for the 2009/2010 financial year, the rest mostly coming from TV licenc es and a grant from government.

The SABC’s dependence on advertising is a problem on two fronts: it is a state entity taking away advertising revenue from commercial broadcasters; and an ethical question arises because of its nonprofit mandate.

It’s still early days but Padayachie’s consultative approach — he recently met the top ICT business leaders — has won him friends in a sector that has long felt ignored by government . Nyanda’s command and control style of leadership was admired by some but he never really listened to voices in the sector, and the policy directives of his predecessor, the late Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, were, to put it politely, confusing.

Key to Padayachie’s vision is a tighter partnership with business to help the state meet its developmental goals. “There is no doubt the private sector will come to the party and government’s goal is to incentivise the private sector,” he has said.

He talks a good game but also has his critics. Rapelang Rabana, head of research & development at Telfree, a Swiss- based telecom company, for one, feels let down by his budget speech. “It was disappointing that the minister did not comment on the competitiveness of the telecom markets in SA. While we have made some significant steps with the reduction in the interconnect rate between service providers, there is still more that can be done,” she says.

There are also mutterings that the speech echoed those made by previous ministers, with similar promises on supporting the ICT sector which come to nothing.

The pressure is on Padayachie to prove that this time it’s different.

Fresh look at key sector

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