For a number of years there has been a call to bridge the digital divide in South Africa – but this vision will not be achieved unless there is a much stronger focus on pervasive broadband.
With the National Broadband Forum taking place this week, Danie Steyn, Intel's regional business manager of sub-Saharan Africa, hopes it will address the most pressing issues.
"While it makes financial sense for telecommunications operators to focus on metros as this is where their biggest market for telecoms services would be, this continues to exclude the more remote areas of the country and effectively eliminates the potential of truly bridging the digital divide," he says.
In the past a number of attempts have been made to connect the underserviced areas through for example the Underserviced Areas Licensees (USALs) and now through Broadband Infraco, but the results are yet to be seen. "I believe that there should be more stringent measures put in place to force operators to move into these areas as this is the only way we will ensure that there is digital inclusion," says Steyn.
He believes that many of the legal obstacles have now been cleared out of the way through the Altech court ruling late last year, which resulted in VANS (Value Added Network Services) licensees to convert their licences into iECNS licenses allowing them to build their own networks.
"This does, however, not solve the problems experienced by those in the rural areas – when are they going to be connected?
"This is the perfect opportunity for an entrepreneur with the required financial backing to set up geographically focused wireless networks based on technologies such as WiMax, as it means must faster roll-out and will allow those in the remote areas to also benefit from the so-called upcoming broadband boom," says Steyn. "The challenge here, however is that the industry is still waiting for the balance of the WiMax spectrum to be allocated by ICASA – a process that has been going for too long."
He believes the allocation of spectrum needs to be progressed much quicker, in order to allow business to roll out their networks.
"The industry needs to find cost-effective ways of bringing these services to the remote areas, but the enabling power and cost effectiveness that new technologies like WiMax and LTE brings, can be severely impacted if ICASA does not allocate enough spectrum to operators."
According to Steyn, ICASA has previously stated that it will only allocate 20MHz to operators in the 2.5GHz band and that allocating too little spectrum has a serious impact on the business case for broadband and will cause operators to limit their services to businesses only or to the high income broadband user. ICASA believes that by dividing the spectrum into smaller amounts, it will allow them to allocate spectrum to more companies and that competition will drive down the cost.
"Competition is important but giving companies too little spectrum will limit their ability to ultimately drive down cost to the affordable level where we all would like broadband to be," says Steyn.
The real benefits of pervasive broadband, he says, will bring the more rural areas closer to the business hubs or metros, by allowing them access to skills, education and business interaction. "In a nutshell, facilitating the process of entrepreneurship in these areas," says Steyn. "It will allow them not only to communicate more effectively, but could eventually create small economic hubs within the rural areas, which eventually will have a positive impact on the South African economy as a whole."
According to Steyn, the time is right for government to step in and create rules around connecting underserviced areas.
"It cannot just be left in the hope that some operator will decide that there is benefit in connecting these areas – government needs to take a tough stance and ensure that telecommunications services are taken to those who have for so long had to live without it," he says.