Rolling out of broadband, while ensuring universal access, is high on the agenda for newly-appointed Minister of Communication, Siphiwe Nyanda, who made his maiden parliamentary budget speech yesterday.
He points out that one of government's priorities is to ensure a massive programme to build economic and social infrastructure.
While regulatory changes over the pastyears have seen the emergence of strong mobile technology companies, the roll out of wireless broadband service offerings, and an increased diversity in ownership, Nyanda stresses that the country should constantly review its policy and regulatory environment to ensure if supports the sector.
"I believe that the time has come to outline the country's long term vision for the sector, to direct future interventions by all spheres of government and relevant role players, and to provide policy certainty for the industry and investors," he says. "We will, therefore, develop an Integrated National ICT Policy Framework, which will be ready by the end of the financial year.
"This policy framework will seek to promote the convergence of technologies, and to stimulate the growth of the economy, in line with the objectives of the National Industrial Policy. It will furthermore encourage e-commerce activities and expand ICT infrastructure, linking rural and urban communities as well as uplift the poor."
The Universal Service & Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) is concluding a consultative process that will help Icasa (Independent Communications Authority of SA) to formulate a policy foundation for addressing the challenges of the digital divide.
"This will also enable a review of the Universal Service Obligations as imposed by ICASA on communications licence holders to be more cognisant of national priorities, achievements of the Millennium Development Goals and targets of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) which seek to have community ICT access and content development," says Nyanda.
"To date access to electronic communication and network services, especially broadband and the internet, remain unaffordable and thus beyond the reach of large sectors of our people."
Since the policy of Under-Services Area Licensees (USALs) and subsequent interventions appear to have failed, Nyanda says the programme will be reviewed and the department will issue new polcies in due course.
As far as broadband access goes, Nyanda points out that – while subscriber numbers continue to grow – this is not necessarily true for rural areas.
"I am aware that significant barriers still exist to extend broadband coverage to all parts of the country, particularly to remote rural areas.
"While the number of new broadband subscribers continues to grow, the rate of broadband deployment in urban and high income areas outpaces deployment in rural and low income areas," he says.
"Markets are not likely to deliver to the majority of the population in the near future without some form of government intervention. Government will be required to ensure coverage particularly to rural areas."
To help co-ordinated national, provincial and local broadband initiatives, Nyanda says the department has started talking to provinces and municipalities regarding the rollout of broadband infrastructure in those areas.
"In this regard, a National Broadband Policy will be finalised by March 2010. The policy will provide a holistic, coordinated national approach to the provision of affordable, reliable and secure broadband infrastructure and services.
"It will also outline targeted interventions to encourage the uptake and usage of broadband services across the country, particularly in remote rural and under-serviced areas.
"We have to ensure that, as the country moves to the information society and knowledge economy, driven by modern technologies, the poor are not left behind. In particular, we must ensure that remote rural communities and under serviced areas are an integral part of the planning from the start, and not as an afterthought."
Regarding infrastructure, Nyanda says that government supports both the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) broadband as well as the Infraco initiatives.
"The NEPAD broadband project is a continental initiative that is aimed at connecting African countries to one another and to the rest of the world through a fibre optic cable network that will result in the provision of affordable broadband capacity to the continent. This would require no financial investment from government.
"Infraco was established to provide affordable broadband to South Africa with direct connectivity to Europe. Therefore there is no contradiction in government supporting both initiatives."