Set-top boxes: Why stop after 10 years and R10bn of taxpayers’ money?

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Government’s about-turn on set-top boxes is a step backwards and a blow to the poor, writes Mamodupi Mohlala

When I heard the announcement that government, through Cabinet, had decided to stop the procurement of state-funded set-top boxes (STBs), I froze.

What I could not understand was why.

Digital migration has been an undisputed necessity to ensure South Africa is in sync with world trends in information and communication technology (ICT).

Why now, I ask again?

What of the years spent on the preparation of strategies and procurement procedures to identify manufacturers – especially black industrialists – and development policies?

What of the communities in rural and peri-urban areas that would be integrated into the ICT age through the STBs?

This technology would eliminate the urban/rural divide and that between the developed and developing worlds.

I have decided to pen this short article in the hope that what may have been lost over the years on the socioeconomic imperatives of STBs will once again take centre stage, triggering a policy rethink on this critical matter.

Without direct government involvement on STBs, led by the department of communications, the socioeconomic benefits of this project will be lost to South Africa forever.

IMPLICATIONS

Today we are debating and frantically coming up with solutions to deal with expropriation of land without compensation.

Should we let the issue of digital migration go unchecked so that in a few years’ time, or even sooner, we are confronted with the consequences of failing to deal timeously with this much-needed social catalyst for development?

The STB had been intended to be a multifunctional device for the development of under-served and rural communities.

STBs were intended to not only provide broadcast television services but also be a platform for easy access to government e-services and e-commerce applications and, in the long term, functionalities like e-health services.

Most important, the STB was going to give the South African child, in both an urban and rural context, the same access to ICT from an early age.

This would once and for all end the phenomenon of the majority of black children only having full interaction with a computer when they enter the mainstream education system or, at times, only when they reach tertiary level.

We would be well on our way to having our own home-grown Bill Gates, Bill Gumede, Bill Gabo or Palesa Gates.

The STBs were seen as a platform to give the youth access to decision makers for their voices to be heard.

ICT, through the STBs, would bring real development into the home and demystify technology.

INTERNATIONAL OBLIGATIONS

South Africa is a member of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) which is an agency of the UN.

We are a signatory to the resolutions of the ITU. We committed to migrate from analogue to digital in order to free up much-needed spectrum for broadband, resulting in the reduced cost of communication services and a launch into the fourth industrial revolution.

What does the announcement say to the world about our international obligations?

I believe that we live in a world economy where commerce has no borders and international conventions and compliance are the currency we use to attract investment.

We not only repeatedly missed the deadline and extensions thereof for migration, but now we simply walk away from the convention as if it is one of those things.

We must not send the wrong signals to international investors on policy regarding ICT.

DOMESTIC IMPACT

From a domestic perspective, there will be immense consequences. For present purposes, however, I will just stick to the ones that I believe to be more profound and far-reaching.

The most obvious is that, ten years and R10 billion of taxpayer’s money later, only then does someone stop and say, no thanks, we are no longer on that path?

What about public consultation? What of the human capital used, formulation of policies, discussion documents and policies?

Not to mention the energy that has been put in by black entrepreneurs and industrialists to benefit from the economic empowerment spin-offs of such a venture.

If government drove this introduction of STBs, it would create jobs and put South Africa on the map as a technology hub.

Having said that, I need to hasten to add that some have argued that what has been put in place are only assembly plants but, even then, it is a start.

When will we ever have Africans being more than mere consumers of technology? When will we finally have the African lions? Is this door shut by design or lack of knowledge?

STBs are an economic tool; money spent must benefit economic growth through job creation and enterprise development at different levels.

ACCESS BY RURAL COMMUNITIES TO THE WORLD

What is to happen to MaSechaba and Siziwe who were born into a rural life of abject poverty?

The STBs were designed to address these very issues of access to e-government services content, stimulation of economic activity and revolutionising commerce using e-commerce applications.

If you or a cooperative wanted to showcase your wares, such as beadwork and traditional dress designs, or even organic farm produce, you would be able to access the website of relevant government departments or international customers and platforms, all from your home using an STB.

An overseas customer would order from you directly and pay you directly and you would arrange shipments using applications in your STB.

This would open the world to all of South Africa, especially those who are in rural and/or marginalised communities.

I could go on, but the STB was intended to be a technological tool that would facilitate bridging not only the digital divide but the economic divide, the social divide and that between rural and urban.

The other direct benefit we will lose is that much-needed spectrum for broadband will forever be lost.

It is internationally accepted that broadcasters are sitting on much-needed spectrum that will, if released, be used for broadband and drastically bring down the costs.

The government has been scratching its head about how they can bring down the costs of broadband. Then, in the very next breath, they make a policy decision that goes against that very initiative.

The decision, as it stands, will entrench existing incumbents in this space.

The STBs most of us have today in our homes are expensive, but they are hardly used to their full capabilities, and do not provide a platform for access to e-government and e-commerce services.

Government-subsidised STBs are a necessity for our people.

In closing I say, Mr President, let government lead the STB project; there is too much invested already. Reap the investment; do not abandon it.

Bring the new dawn to rural and urban alike through STBs, led by the state.

Mohlala is a former councillor at the Independent Communications Authority of SA and former director-general in the department of communications, and is currently a practising attorney

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