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The digital economy in South Africa doesn’t benefit all citizens equally, but there are some promising initiatives underway to help bridge the digital divide.
Yunus Carrim, Minister of Communications, yesterday addressed delegates the Google Big Tent event, pointing out that the growth of the digital economy in South Africa is significant, even it does not benefit people equitably.

“Currently it stands at approximately R59-billion or 2% of South Africa’s GDP,” says, comparing it favourably to agriculture, which contributes 2,1% to GDP.
“E-commerce is growing at 30% a year and the potential for expansion is great when one considers that more people are coming online as a result of the increase in the use of smartphones,” he adds.

Carrim believes that, as broadband becomes more prevalent and TVs gain more intelligence, the switch from analogue to digital TV broadcasting will create significant opportunities for creativity and innovation.

“TVs are already capable of connecting to the internet,” he says. “Jobs in the ICT industry will open up for young people and the Internet will be the starting point on this path forward.”

However, these opportunities must benefit the poor and disadvantaged fairly, he says, and we need guard against the country’s existing socioeconomic divides being reinforced through technology between those who are connected and those who are not.

“Significant sections of our society are far behind those who benefit most from ICT. Socio-economic circumstances, education imbalances, as well as language barriers, are some of the factors in this exclusion,” Carrim says.

“In remote areas that are often sparsely populated and located in difficult geographical environments, telecoms infrastructure is usually underdeveloped because providing telecom services in such areas means low returns on investment for service providers.

“We need to harness the potential of ICT to reduce, not increase, the divides in our country. That’s essentially the challenge.”

Some initiatives that are underway include the National Development Plan, New Growth Path and the ANC’s Mangaung policy resolutions on the communications sector as the broad framework.
A more effective Department of Communications will also help to bridge the divide, he says, along with a less fragmented and fractious ICT sector.

“We have set realistic and realisable goals in our programme for the period until the 2014 elections,” Carrim says. “We have chosen these goals carefully to set a firmer foundation for more effective service delivery in the 2014-2019 term.”

The department is also finalising the ICT Policy Review.

“So what of our programme?” Carrim asks. “We recognise the close links between broadband, spectrum and digital migration, and this constitutes a crucial aspect of our programme.”
Key elements of the programme include a broadband policy, spectrum and plan, which Carrim intends will be finalised by the end of November.

An effective spectrum policy, to facilitate the deployment of wireless technologies in support of universal access and economic development, will be developed by March 2014.

The digital migration roll-put, which is significantly behind schedule, needs to begin. “A major stumbling block is the impasse among the broadcasters and other private sector stakeholders on whether the set-top boxes should have a control system or not,” he explains.

“A meeting is being convened of the contending parties this month to see if consensus can be reached. We will consider all points of view and then move forward as soon as possible. If all goes well, we should begin the roll-out of didgistal terrestial television within a few months.”

A greater focus needs to be placed on the rural and other underserviced areas, Carrim adds. “We are going to place greater stress on delivering in rural and underserviced areas. We intend to connect 788 schools by the end of the financial year. This figure will be higher if our current negotiations with some of the operators on implementing their universal service obligations go well.

“The South African Post Office has also committed to building 50 new post offices by the end of the financial year.”

The department is also committed to further reducing the cost of communications. “How can it be that our telecoms operators are able to offer cheap prices in other African countries, but at home they charge huge amounts?” Carrim asks.

“This is one of the major factors inhibiting the growth of the Internet Economy in South Africa. The more people online, the more successful our e-commerce ventures will be. In that regard we are liaising with the regulator ICASA on their review of Mobile Termination Rates.

“We have to sensibly and sensitively set a firm foundation for a further reduction in the costs of communication. The needs of the users and the service providers will both be taken into account. A new policy directive on transparent pricing policy will be finalized by the end of September. By the end of September we will be convening a pricing workshop as part of a consultative process on the cost-to-communicate.”

Carrim is aiming to drive greater stability in state-owned companies, with the primary focus on the SABC and Post Office, which needs to reposition itself to play a new role in the Internet age.

Carrim has commited to an ICT policy review, with a National Integrated ICT Policy Green Paper ready within three months. Public hearings will follow and a White Paper will be finalised either shortly before the 2014 elections or soon thereafter.

Finally, a National ICT Forum bringing together government, the industry, trade unions, and other civil society role-players will be held in late November or early in 2014.

“We are also seeking a co-ordinated effort towards the roll-out of e-skills and better utilisation of state funds in ensuring that our citizens are not merely consumers of ICTs. In the long run we want our people to also be developers of ICT applications and technology,” Carrim says. “We want citizens to know how to use ICTs to gain better access to government services and a better quality of life.”