SA's information poverty threat

WHILE South Africa has made significant strides in telecommunications to achieve world class mobile telephony infrastructure, there is a growing divide that is leaving the majority of potential users in the dark ages of technology.

This silent development is creating information poverty, which if not addressed will reinforce disparities between those who can afford and those who cannot.

I thought about this ‘crisis’ when I came across an article posted on the US-based Total Telecom website, which stated that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – a US telco regulator – has allocated $100m to fund research into low-cost rural broadband solutions.

The FCC said a series of network experiments will inform its strategy of extending rural broadband via the Connect America Fund – a public-private partnership charged with rolling out network coverage to every US citizen over the next 10 years.

It aims to roll out networks in areas with no services or where it would be too costly for private companies to roll out such services.

Probe for massive maladministration

This article got me thinking about the local situation, where the Universal Service and Access Fund (Usaf) is administered by the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (Usaasa). Ironically, the Usaasa is being investigated for massive maladministration and unlawful appropriation of funds.

Usaasa is a state-owned entity of government established through the Electronic Communications Act No 36 of 2005, to ensure that: “Every man, woman and child whether living in the remote areas of the Kalahari or in urban areas of Gauteng can be able to connect, speak, explore and study using Information and Communication Technologies.”

By any stretch of imagination this is a noble goal. The question is: has Usaasa lived up to this mandate?
I think it still has a lot to do.

As I write this article, someone for example residing in the far-flung rural areas of Kakamas or Mount Frere or even a resident of Freedom Park seeking employment or researching how to start a business remains at a huge disadvantage. They are far removed from the digital world.

Worse still, there are no signs that they will be incorporated into the internet space, anytime soon.
Another anomaly is that the public are not informed about how much money is sitting in the coffers of Usaasa.

There is evidence that telco operators have contributed millions of rand to the fund. There is little or no proof that this money is being used to help South Africans to have access to basic telecoms services.

It can be concluded that digital exclusion is inadvertently being reinforced by the lack of ICT development programmes in rural and underserviced areas such as informal settlements.

Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services Siyabonga Cwele might best be advised to reflect on whether there is still a need for Usaasa.

The state already has a National Broadband Policy, SA Connect, which places Cwele’s department in a position to coordinate and support the roll-out of broadband infrastructure and services across the country, to achieve 100% broadband penetration by 2020.

Is there still a need for this agency? It has failed for many years to help all South Africans to equally enjoy the benefits of telecommunications.

I suggest the shutting down of Usaasa. Staff can be moved to other agencies. The cash pile can be put to good use by Cwele’s department to roll out broadband in rural and under serviced areas.

Even if Usaasa tries to justify its existence, fast-paced telecoms changes are leaving behind rural dwellers and other citizens in underserviced areas.

Upmarket suburbs in Johannesburg are marching forward and seeking to benefit from the digital world.

Suburbs - including Parkhurst and Parkview - are planning to develop their own fibre-to-the-home networks.

While such moves have to be commended and encouraged, the same cannot be said about rural areas.

R5m donations gone to waste

Clearly, South African rural areas have not benefited from the Under-Serviced Area Licences (Usals), which were licensed in 2005 to broaden access to communications in historically neglected regions.

These regions received R5m each from Usaasa. They included Bokone Telecommunications from the Capricorn district in the Limpopo Province, Thinta Thinta Telecommunications from the Ugu district, Kingdom Communications from the Zululand district in KwaZulu-Natal and Ilizwi Telecommunications from the OR Tambo district in the Eastern Cape.

However, these Usals suffered severe financial problems and consequently failed to deliver on their mandates.

Usaasa plans have failed in the past and aren’t making any real progress towards bridging the digital divide.

Unless this matter is addressed, the benefits of the internet will not be available equally to all South Africans.

Hopefully the following will not be a norm in our digital world: “Surf the Internet at random, click on this, click on that, and whose voice do you hear around the globe?” as written by Pippa Norris in her book Digital Divide.

 - Fin24

*Gugu Lourie is a former correspondent for Thomson Reuters, Business Report, Finweek magazine and Fin24 (writing a blog titled 'Googled'). He is the editor of Views expressed are his own. Follow him on #twitter @LourieGugu.
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