The race is on to get South Africa ready for 5G and ensure that more citizens have access to broadband. This week saw Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams signing an important Industry Stakeholder Principles of Excellence agreement with industry CEOs which aims to level out the playing field.

Communications Minister says government policy is in place and it is time for the private sector to help ensure the digital economy benefits all

The agreement comes ahead of an Information Memorandum which will be published by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) at the end of December to license high demand spectrum to new entrants, potential new investors, and incumbents operators. Up until now, operators have monopolised the space, and through this new pact and a policy direction gazetted by the minister, it is envisaged that more players will come on board, including women and youth.

Ndabeni-Abrahams and industry players attended FTTX Council Africa in Johannesburg this week. She said that the government was moving swiftly to ensure that the right policies were in place for the sector, however, cooperation from the private sector was essential. According to the FTTX Council, by the end of June 2019, about 1.5 million endpoints have been passed, with a total of over 600,000 connections. This comprises over 496,000 homes that are connected and billed, and over 114,000 business premises.

She said that fibre was one of the key pillars to establish the next generation of connectivity and a critical enabler for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Without fibre the country was unable to benefit from 5G.
“These are truly impressive numbers, however, we are also alive to the fact that we are still only scratching the tip of the iceberg. I have engaged with operators who are in agreement that the amount of fibre that we currently have in place is not nearly adequate to serve the future needs of the telecommunications industry,” the minister said.

“Further, whilst acknowledging the R100 billion investment that the industry has made so far, we believe that to achieve our 5G vision, that at least six to eight times more fibre must be deployed.”

The new policy is being driven by the department and the Presidential Commission on the 4IR. It includes the department mandating Broadband Infraco (BBI) and the State Information Technology Agency (Sita) to collaborate amongst themselves, other state-owned agencies and private sector players to roll out broadband services. However, due to budget constraints, the scope of the first phase has been adjusted to now connect 970 government facilities. By the end of September 2019, 551 of the 970 government facilities were connected. They are mainly schools and health facilities.

“It is worth noting that work is underway on the remaining facilities and these will be completed by the end of 2019/20 financial year. With regards to Phase Two, the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) is assisting the department with facilitating a feasibility study that will explore various cost-effective and efficient implementation models as well as sustainable funding models,” said Ndabeni-Abrahams.

She said collaboration would significantly reduce the time to deploy broadband infrastructure and services while minimising the duplication of infrastructure. FTTX would play an integral role in assisting the government in realising its policy aspiration of increasing broadband speed from 10mbps to 100mbps. The department has also set up a virtual Rapid Deployment Coordination Centre (RDCC). Its job is to coordinate and accelerate the infrastructure deployment process of sustainable and environmentally sound broadband infrastructure and ensure the rapid deployment of ICT infrastructure to support government programmes.

The department has also developed a National Digital Skills Strategy. This is critical as a recent study by Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) and the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) – the JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey – warns that there is still a dire shortage of skills in the country’s information and communication technology (ICT) sector.

“We have also set a bold vision to train one million young people in data science and related skills by 2030. FTTX is therefore urged to support this vision by building the necessary skills required for effective deployment of fibre in the country,” the minister said.

She called on the private sector to help ensure that service delivery by the country’s 257 municipalities improves. “It is… necessary for the private sector to lend a helping hand… We would like to see the rapid mushrooming of smart districts in the near future and, we implore FTTX members to support government strides of fast-tracking the roll-out of broadband infrastructure and services.”

The agreement signed with stakeholders this week will boost the societal transformation South Africa needs to take advantage of the digital economy and close the inequality gap. The aim of this document is to develop and maintain a standard of conduct that is acceptable to the industry and set by the leading companies, their vendors, customers and employees.

“The Principles of Excellence is driven by the leadership of the industry, and as the leadership continually strives to do what is right, this culture filters through the industry and allows us to establish business ethics of excellence. We agree to do what is right and in doing so we reflect positively on the values and reputation of the industry as a whole,” the document reads.

It commits industry players to strive towards digital inclusion, ongoing investment and contributing to job creation, developing and supporting small and medium enterprises, startups and entrepreneurs, ongoing commitment to innovation, contributing to the African continent as a whole, ethical business practices, cooperation, and collaboration,and committing to the next generation of mobile technology.

By: Amy Musgrave