Reshaping South Africa’s ICT Policies for the 21st Century

Published on 9th March 2014

Strengthening the ICT sector is crucial to achieving our economic growth, development and job-creation targets. While ICT has huge potential to reduce inequalities, if not managed properly, it also has just as much potential to increase the divides in our society between the haves and have-nots, the connected and the unconnected. We need to adjust to the digital age and become more of a digital economy, but we have to do this in ways that advance our developmental goals. For example, while the the digital economy can stimulate the creation of new jobs, it can also lead to job-losses, so we need to be strategic in how we harness ICT to advance our economy.

A few weeks ago Facebook bought WhatsApp, a messaging service, for $19 billion. By comparison South Africa’s entire Budget was just over $90 billion. So, one ICT transaction was worth over 20% of our annual budget. At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, we met representatives of Facebook. Currently, there are 9.4 million Facebook users in our country. They are keen to extend their footprint in this country and the continent. I gather from elsewhere that there are plans for WhatsApp to start offering free voice calls from the middle of the year. What implications will this have for the mobile industry and the ICT sector as a whole?

The figures bandied about at the Mobile World Congress were astounding. There are currently 7.3 billion smartphones in the world, more than the global population of 7 billion. But, of course, many people have more than one cell phone or SIM card while others cannot afford the most basic cellphone. It is estimated that about 30% of South Africans own a smartphone. It is expected that by 2025 most of the world’s population of 8 billion will be online – this is the world we have to prepare for!

Technological advancement waits for no one. The rest of the world is moving forward at an incredible speed. From driverless cars to advances in robotics, the pace of ICT development is fast and furious! We need to get onto those driverless cars or we’ll be left behind, traversing the ICT landscape in our donkey carts! So we need to be far more connected – but in ways, we stress, that serves our developmental and job-creation goals and reduces inequalities.

Not so good, but not so bad either

We agree that ICT is lagging behind in South Africa and needs to be considerably strengthened. But we are not as badly off as is made out. I’ll refer to some progress we have made. From a zero base in 1993, the mobile phone penetration rate today is about 136% of the population. However, only 7.9% have access to landline phones. Statistics South Africa reports that the contribution of the ICT sector to GDP in 2012 was 6%. The telecommunications sector market alone has grown from R8.2 billion in 1993 to more than R179 billion in 2012. The 2011 Census survey shows that 89% of the 14.5 million households in the country have access to mobile phones, whilst 75% of households have access to a television set and a 68% have access to a radio set.

There was only 1 submarine cable before 2009. Now there are 4 international submarine fibre cables and an additional 3 are planned. These undersea cables connect South Africa with Europe and Asia, and with other African countries through various landing points on the East and West coast of the continent.

Television reached 60% of the population in 1998. This increased to over 91.7% in 2012 .Television channels have increased from 7 in 1999 to 180 in 2012. Five more community television broadcasters have been licensed. Community television currently has an average weekly reach of 8.5% of the population. More than 200 community radio stations have been licensed, and government has spent more than R340 million supporting community media.

The South African Post Office branch network extends to 2 433 access points. This is made up of 1 590 fully-fledged branches as well as 843 retail postal agencies. 1 763 access points are located in rural areas, with 670 in urban areas.

However, despite these positive developments, we are still faced with pressing challenges, which include the fact that not all South African citizens have access to affordable, secure, reliable and quality communications services.

Need for change in ICT Policies and Regulation

With democracy, we developed separate White and Green Papers on telecommunications, broadcasting, postal services and e-commerce. The separate policies and pieces of legislation were developed between 1993 and 2005. We did acknowledge though that changes in technology would require a review of the country’s policies and regulations in future. That future has arrived and convergence has become the most powerful driving force transforming today’s ICT landscape.

There are basically two forms of convergence relevant:

i) Technological convergence – this relates to the tendency of technological systems to develop in a manner that allows them to perform the same tasks. Previously separate technologies such as telephony, data and video can now be saved, transmitted and received using the same devises. Technology convergence is of particular interest to policy makers and regulators as it changes the nature of services allowing an operator who was licensed under one category to be able to do things that would have required different category licences in the past.

ii) Platforms, Applications and Services –This includes, firstly, the shift to Internet Protocol (IP)-based technologies that have affected the cost of networks and offer opportunities for innovation; secondly, the deployment of fibre optic technologies that have increased the speed and size of data that can be transmitted; and, thirdly, the use of wireless technologies.

Challenges that need to be addressed

Global financial institutions such as the World Bank have published a positive outlook on economic growth rates for the African continent and particularly Sub-Saharan Africa. Much of this growth is premised on investment in economic infrastructure, with a particular focus on investment for reliable connectivity. The current levels of investment in core networks of national economic infrastructure are insufficient. Better government coordination in terms of integrated development of infrastructure is critical in order to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth by 2030.

As part of government’s National Infrastructure Plan, the Department of Communications (DoC) is leading Strategic Integrated Project 15 which focuses on accelerating access to communications technologies. In December last year Cabinet adopted “South Africa Connect,” the country’s broadband policy and strategy. A key aspect of this is public-private partnerships to extend the infrastructure for broadband. The extension of broadband is utterly crucial to our ICT and economic growth and developmental goals – and “South Africa Connect” will be the broad framework within which almost all of our Department’s work will be located for several years to come. We need to implement “South Africa Connect” decisively.

According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), mobile-cellular subscriptions in Africa in 2013 stood at about 545 million and the number of active mobile-broadband users is estimated to be about 93 million. The African continent accounts for only 16% of the total number of people who are online.  According to the ITU, this low figure in terms of access to the internet is due primarily to the high costs of fixed broadband services, which makes up as much as 30.1 percent of average monthly incomes. It should ideally not exceed 3%. Internet penetration in Africa is half that of Asia and the Pacific, with a total of 7% of African households having internet access, according to the ITU. According to the Stats SA 2011, Census only 35%  of households have access to the internet.

The cost of communication in the country remains stubbornly high. Whilst ICASA and the DoC have made some strides in reducing the cost of doing business in the country, more needs to be done.  There are, of course, at the moment court challenges from Vodacom and MTN about the latest ICASA regulations to reduce Mobile Termination Rates. These two companies share over 85% of the revenues from mobile use in this country.

A key concern of the Green Paper is to ensure that South Africans have universal affordability and access to communications services. As pointed to already, the rapid development of technology as well as the creation of a hyper-connected society brings with it the risks of creating additional inequalities between the haves and have-nots.  With technology evolving at an exponential pace and becoming integrated into so many aspects of our daily lives, it is vital that the right ICT policies be in place to ensure that progress brought about by technology does not leave the poor behind. We need to respond to this challenge by ensuring that poor people reap the benefits of technological improvements and that they can afford these communications services.

Convergence has had a profound impact on the manner in which regulators around the world, including ICASA (Independent Communications Authority of South Africa), have set regulatory frameworks in line with technological and market realities. What is the appropriate role of the regulator in the digital era? Which legacy regulations should be carried over into the new environment and which no longer have a place? What would be a sustainable funding model for the independent regulator?

South Africa needs to review its broadcasting policy frameworks in light of convergence and digitisation to ensure that citizens access diverse content, including locally produced public interest programming; that diversity of ownership and control of content services is promoted; that there is fair competition and that audiences are protected from illegal and harmful content. More importantly in the era of convergence, some of the policy issues we must grapple with include how best to approach broadcasting-like services delivered over the internet; strengthening the three-tier broadcasting system of public, community and private, to ensure the goals of diversity of content and ownership are met; re-orientation of the public broadcaster to discharge its mandate in the era of digitisation and convergence; funding the public mandate and setting best accountability frameworks for the SABC. Mobile operators are working on 5G networks that by 2020 will download an entire movie in just one second. This is the world we have to prepare for.

We are too far behind in migrating from analogue to digital television. We continue to haggle over set top box issues while the world moves on. We are involved in a variety of forms of engagement to bridge the divides among the stakeholders over the current policy of the government. And we need to bring this process to conclusion soon.

The postal services sector is seriously challenged with the threats posed by electronic substitution. However, although traditional mail is progressively being replaced by email and other methods of instant electronic communication, the postal industry still has a relevant place in today’s global market, according to the Universal Postal Union. In South Africa, we believe that the South African Post Office’s (SAPO) vast network of postal outlets, including its broadband infrastructure can be leveraged to support other e-government initiatives, bringing government information and services closer to citizens. In addition, all citizens must have access to basic postal services, including owning an address. SAPO’s mandate to ensure that every citizen is provided with an address remains a fundamental goal.

But of course SAPO is challenged with mismanagement of resources, poor labour relations, lack of skills, and in other ways. It has to pull itself out of this. As the Department we are assisting SAPO, but the primary responsibility resides with the SAPO Board. We must and will get there – not overnight certainly, but over time. We need through the Green Paper process to become much clearer about the role of the post office in a digital age.

If you don’t have money, you’re living in an information desert. The poorest communities in South Africa only have access to information via word-of-mouth, the state broadcaster, and eTV. If we are to improve the quality of our democratic decision-making, increase accountability and generally strengthen the robustness of our political system, we must ensure that all our citizens have access to multiple sources of information.

Just consider the changes taking place in the developed world and some of the developing world in terms of education. The traditional model of stuffing children into a brick building and teaching them by rote is beginning to fade. The Internet has revolutionised education, connecting learners to teachers from around the world, raising standards and aspirations for all.

The advent of Khan Academy allows millions to follow online tutorials delivered via YouTube. Wikipedia has almost destroyed the Encyclopedia Britannica and in the process built the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever seen, recruiting an army of volunteers and making all the content freely available on the Internet.

Games as educational tools have come of age. Not only are games teaching literacy and numeracy, they are teaching leadership and social skills, as is evidenced by the Harvard Business Review study that showed a guild-master in World of Warcraft would be a better CEO of a Fortune500 company than a Harvard MBA graduate.

The quality of our children’s education is today in many countries as much a function of the quality of their schools, as it is the quality of their access to the Internet. Today in South Africa, if you have money your access to learning resources is infinite and global. If you do not have money, the riches of online educational content are locked behind a door for which you can’t afford the key.

Just think too of economic opportunities for those who are better off compared to those who are poor.  Can you imagine a world where you can’t search for a job online? Or a world where you can’t sell things online? Or a world where you can’t email your CV to a potential employer? Better off South Africans take Career Junction, Gumtree and Gmail for granted. And yet most South Africans have no access to these online applications for no reason other than they can’t afford the cost of data. Employment, job creation, and economic growth are stunted by digital inequality.

One of the other areas we need to firmly address is the inadequate access to ICT of vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities, women, youth and children. Without disability accessibility in the design and development of communications infrastructure and services, from television programming and its distribution to the common everyday electronic devices, people with disabilities will be left out and left behind – when ICTs could so easily make their lives easier. Just over a week ago Google unveiled a smartphone with 3D sensors that creates 3D maps of a user’s surroundings. The phone is expected come with features like indoor mapping that can help visually-impaired people to travel without assistance.

The 2013 ITU “Facts and Figures” document estimates that more men than women use the internet. Globally about 37% of women compared with about 41% of men are online. The gender gap is more pronounced in the developing world, where 16% fewer women than men use the internet. This means that we need to have a more gendered approach when we deal with issues of ICT uptake and usage, and be able to remove barriers for women’s access to and control of ICTs, including gender discrimination in jobs and education.

There are approximately one billion youth in the world today. This means that approximately one person in five is between the ages of 15 to 24 years. It is estimated that the number of youth living in developing countries will grow significantly by 2025. We need to take youth issues into consideration when we develop the new ICT agenda. Young people have to significantly benefit from increased access to ICTs, in particular through improvements in education, social development and their ability to learn, use and develop ICT and its applications.

The rapid development of ICT is also leading to the growth of new forms of national and transnational cybercrime. Threats to critical infrastructure and national interests arising from the use of the internet for criminal activities are of growing concern to all of us. The harm incurred to businesses, governments and individuals through cybercrime and cyber-attacks threatens the application of ICT for government services, health care and e-commerce, among many other areas.

As users start losing confidence in electronic transactions and business, the opportunity costs may become substantial. For malware and phishing, South Africa ranks in the top 5 countries worldwide. 31% of all attacks target small businesses, as they are likely to be less prepared to handle cyber risks. New cybercrime trends include attacking mobile devices and social networks.

In this regard, we need to ensure that there are effective policy and legal frameworks that meet the challenges of the new forms of offences that affect the confidentiality, integrity and availability of computer systems and computer data, including illegal access, illegal interception, data and system interference, and misuse of devices.

We must ensure that these frameworks at the national level are consistent with existing or developing international legal instruments so that regional mechanisms for preventing cybercrime and improving protection against cybercrime are put in place and are effective. In addition, we must work towards ensuring that we increase the state’s capacity to combat cybercrime and also increase levels of awareness for individuals, businesses and government on information security and cybercrime.

South Africa is a signatory to a number of treaties and conventions that relate to cybercrime and cybersecurity. We also have many laws governing cybersecurity and cybercrime which are used to protect consumers: The Basic Copyright Act of 1978; “RICA” – Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication related Information Act – 70/2002; Films and Regulation Act of 1996; Electronic Communications Act 36 of 2005 (ECA); and Electronic Communications and Transactions Act (ECTA).

Each of these acts in its own right provides protection mechanisms for cybercrime and cybersecurity for both individuals and companies in South Africa. We also appointed the National Cybersecurity Advisory Council late last year. But clearly we need to be far more effective in combatting cybercrime. This consultative conference needs to offer concrete proposals in this regard.

The provision of government services and information to the public using electronic means allows government to deliver services to citizens wherever they are and whenever they need them. In South Africa, e-government still has a long way to go. But we have been making some progress in certain areas, for example SARS e-filing, Home Affairs processing of identity, passport and other documents, the IEC’s voter registration, and the Companies and Intellectual Property Commison. We have to do much, much more to expand e-government services.

The knowledge economy and information society requires profoundly new ways of thinking, working and living. These include building new capacities for citizens to use ICT to become more self-reliant and socially cohesive and equipping them with skills for new opportunities with technological advancement.  South Africa’s ranking in terms of global e-readiness has dropped. This is due in part to the lack of a solid e-skills base. We need to have an integrated approach between government and its social partners to address ICT skills. We launched the Ikamva National e-Skills Institute, to be known as iNeSI, two weeks ago. It will play a crucial role in co-ordinating and developing e-skills, particularly for youth.

But we need to do much more – and we need the cooperation of all the relevant organisations. The Oscar Pistorius trial points to a future that is imaginable only through technology. We don’t know yet the full extent of how what has been dubbed as the “trial by social media” will impact  on society and affect the justice system. All we know is that our world will be changed, again, by technology.

By Yunus Carrim

Minister of Communications, Republic of South Africa.

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