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  REPORT - SOUTH AFRICA Part II Telecommunications
 

NEW TECHNOLOGY AND SOPHISTICATED COMMUNICATIONS INFRASTRUCTURE CAN HELP BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN THE NATION'S FIRST AND SECOND ECONOMIES WITH PROFITABLE AND EXPANDING ICT NETWORKS ENABLING GREATER SOCIAL COHESION
Deregulation opens competition for social connection

The government is set to restructure the ICT sector to facilitate investment to promote user-friendly telecom access across the nation.

Complete with some of the latest in wireless, fixed-line, satellite and cellular technology, South Africa boasts a large and developed telecommunications network. Many areas which previously lacked coverage now have wireless technologies available to them as business becomes increasingly competitive among local providers.

The cellular market, for one, is now the fourth fastest growing Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) market worldwide. International companies are heading to South Africa, including Virgin Mobile, which launched its services in June. Today there are more then 14 million mobile-phone and 5 million fixed-line subscribers nationwide.

Meanwhile, new information and communications technology (ICT) is becoming widely available and user-friendly. From Public Information Terminals (PITs) to Multi-Purpose Community Centrums (MPCCs), South African communities are gaining access to ICT. The World Bank is co-funding projects aimed at developing tele-medicine, tele-health, tele-education and tele-agriculture. Another project in the pipeline includes a partnership with Microsoft to produce computerized languages in all of South Africa’s 11 languages.

Work remains to be done. The government is looking to reduce high telecoms costs and change its regulatory environment. The African Connection Project, for example, is set to restructure the sector through new policy and regulatory frameworks that facilitate investment. Also, historically the sector had had little competition since Telkom, the largest provider in Africa, had a monopoly. Now its deregulation is opening up gaps for other wireless broadband and data service providers. Emerging on the scene is Vodacom, a joint venture between Telkom and Vodafone that showcases foreign investment in South Africa and provides GSM service to more than 21.5 million customers on the continent. A successful South African multinational well established in the market is MTN, which has GSM networks in eight African countries and 17 million subscribers.

IVY MATSEPE-CASABURRI
IVY MATSEPE-CASABURRI
Minister of Communications

In the interview that follows, the South African Minister of Communications, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, talks about the ministry’s goals, the importance of the sector and the challenges that lie ahead.

What do you consider to be the ministry’s primary objectives?
We have made a lot of progress, but we still have a long road ahead of us. Right now, costs are too high so our main goal is to achieve affordability. We also hope to connect local and national governments, which means linking more than 200 municipalities. We are also working with the Departments of Labor and Education to install internet access in all of South Africa’s schools by 2013. We have to work on improving infrastructure and facilitating signal distribution to all of the nation’s provinces and ensure that every language station is available in its relevant province.

How important is communications in bringing historically disadvantaged people into the mainstream economy and society?
The ICT sector plays a key role in social cohesion. It is a vital instrument because it promotes a better understanding of democracy, and it makes a contribution to the process of nation building. Also, the sector is one of the most successful in terms of effective implementation of the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Code.

What are the biggest challenges that lie ahead?
Accessibility and bringing down the costs for national and international businesses are probably our greatest tasks. We have to make the sector more competitive to reduce prices. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) works to promote affordable telecoms services and promote new players in the industry. Another challenge is digitalization, which is important because it gives us the potential to reach people in a wide range of languages. Then content becomes a challenge. We must decide what content to develop and how, again in all 11 languages. Currently we are working with other governmental departments for content on health, education, culture, science and technology. Broadband will not really work unless you have the proper content and it is key for our development. It not only allows for the liberalization of the market, but also opens up all kinds of opportunities.