A draft framework towards a broadband strategy in South Africa, launched in Johannesburg on Tuesday, highlights the current policy vacuum around broadband roll-out in South Africa. It also intends to create a "popular movement" around broadband in the country.
It was also hoped that a reinvigorated policy direction in South Africa could propel the country back to the number one spot in internet access rankings on the continent.
The draft framework was one of the outcomes of a one-day multi-stakeholder workshop held in Parktown by the South African National Broadband Forum, an initiative of the Shuttleworth Foundation, SANGONeT, South Africa Connect, and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).
The forum said the framework was intended as an advocacy document that can be used to lobby government around broadband roll-out, as well as by sectors to galvanize a pro-active response to the imminent availability of the Seacom undersea cable in South Africa in June.
According to one presentation, South Africa needs to spend some R40-billion on ICTs infrastructure roll-out a year in order to keep its place in international access rankings. While this was a "guesstimate", it served to illustrate that current spending patterns are nowhere near what they need to be in order for the country to
compete successfully in the information economy.
This, together with a lack of policy coherence, was likely to increase the access divide in the country, and have a negative knock-on impact on poverty alleviation efforts.
Broadband had a crucial role to play in the delivery of government services, as well as in economic development generally.
APC's Willie Currie says there is an opportunity for lobbying for progressive policy development on broadband given the upcoming elections, and that the post-Polokwane administration had given itself the task of scaling up service delivery to the majority of South Africans.
He pointed out that there were parallels between South Africa and the US, which had like this country been dropping in global access rankings. As a result, a broadband strategy became a selling point of the Obama administration's election campaign, and was now high on its agenda.
"South Africa was a leading economy with respect to internet penetration," Currie says . "Now we are fourth in Africa behind Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria. With the upcoming elections, there is a window of opportunity when new ideas can be proposed and demands raised. Engagement can take place."
The draft framework, which is available online for comment and input, sets out the vision or broadband take-up in South Africa in general terms. Its overall goal is for "every South African home, business, and public, private and community-based institution [to] have access to affordable high-speed broadband connections to the Internet".
It goes on to articulate general principles around demand and supply-side objectives, as well those dealing with e-governance, e-citizenship and education.
The Shuttleworth Foundation's Steve Song has encouraged stakeholders to add their name in support of the framework. "The intention is to use it to ask questions of politicians and political parties," says Currie. "It is a reference point that allows us to ask: 'Where do you stand?' We want to create a popular movement around broadband as a strategic issue."
The workshop was attended by stakeholders from across the board, including government, the private sector and civil society. Presentations included projections on internet penetration in South Africa, the impact of broadband on content industries, education and e-citizenship, as well as on using ICTs to deal with crises such as climate change.
The draft Framework for a Comprehensive National Broadband Strategy in South Africa is downloadable from: http://www.apc.org/en/system/files/SANBF_Framework_Draft_18032009.pdf