Fireworks as SA politicians debate broadband

Fast internet is becoming a reality in SA. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
Fast internet is becoming a reality in SA. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

Cape Town - Members of Parliament have clashed with the minister of posts and telecommunications over the strategic broadband plan.

In a presentation to the Portfolio Committee meeting on Telecommunications and Postal Services, the DA's Marian Shinn locked horns with Minister Siyabonga Cwele on Tuesday.

At the centre of the debate is the decision to name Telkom as the lead agency to roll out broadband as the country races to meet a self-imposed deadline of internet access by 2020.

"Both in Sona [State of the Nation] and you yourself repeated this: Telkom was chosen as the lead agency for this [broadband rollout]," said Shinn.

In his chaotic State of the Nation, President Jacob Zuma said that Telkom would be the lead agency as the country moved towards rolling out broadband infrastructure.

Telkom's network

"Telkom is not the only agency; it is the lead agency. Telkom has the technical capacity to roll out this infrastructure. It's got the network so we build on that network," said Cwele, doubling down on the point that Telkom would be employed as well as other companies.

But the minister went further, saying that Telkom's network was a key factor in the decision.

"We cannot ignore that infrastructure. We cannot ignore that Telkom has invested in this infrastructure almost throughout the country and then say now we should create another parallel infrastructure to that," said Cwele.

Telkom's role is at the centre of a broadband rollout debate. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

According to the department's presentation to the Portfolio Committee, broadband penetration in SA is at 17%, versus internet access at 48%.

The department says that the "current market structure is inefficient, costly" and duplicates infrastructure in urban areas.

Shinn lambasted the department's plan is short-sighted.

"This is such an inward looking plan that one tends to think that this department sees its role as being the IT shop of government - its major focus is on e-government services," she said.

Private sector

"Nowhere are there any incentives for companies - no policy certainty, no incentives about the inclusion of the private sector. There's nothing there that would make any investor say: 'Yeah, we see ICT as an economic enabler,'" Shinn said.

Cwele countered that his department was intent on working with the private sector to roll out broadband.

"We are going to work with the private sector - let's be clear on that - we've got no hostility toward the private sector, they are our partner in delivery.

"But this private sector needs the infrastructure we are talking about. CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) has said there's a market failure here: These things are not everywhere," said the minister.

According to Statistics South Africa, broadband cost remains a limiting factor in SA's drive toward an information society.

"Although mobile broadband packages are much cheaper than comparable ADSL or fixed broadband ones, South African prices are still considered expensive," says the General Household Survey (GHS) Series Volume VI Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) report.

For Cwele, Telkom's role would be to expand fibre networks, but he insisted that these networks would be open access to allow multiple services.

"The crux of it is whether were going to have open access networks. To us, that's the most critical thing which will enable efficient deployment of ICT and the use of our infrastructure."

Watch the debate in the Portfolio Committee in this online video:

- Follow Duncan on Twitter

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