The Department of Communications (DoC) presented its strategic plan and Annual Performance Plan and noted the rapidly evolving field in which the DoC worked. Mention was also made of the difficulties that it faced when other countries actively tried to minimise its impact in information and communications technology, and the power struggles around developing and developed nations. Other major problems were apparent with the entities Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), which was owed a substantial amount of money, which was the reason why the DoC had come up with the amendments to the ICASA Act, and SABC had received far less than its requested budget, and was plagued with internal difficulties.
Members’ questions revolved around three major issues. Firstly, they wanted to know more about the digital migration process, and South Africa’s state of readiness for it, discussing whether the DoC was ready with its particular technology. It emerged that the difficulties seemed to lie with the rollout of Set Top Boxes (STBs) to convert the signal, where the Department of Trade and Industry was involved. There had been an initial decision that Sentech should attend to aspects, but the matter had been referred to court after SABC and ETV also became involved, and since the matter was still under consideration, further details were not forthcoming at this stage. The DoC acknowledged that its own communication, both to this Committee and the public, was not up to expectations, and undertook to initiate the grassroots marketing and information campaign with the month to inform South Africa of the digital migration process. The second set of questions focused on a joint project between the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Communications to connect approximately 1 500 schools through a WAN network. Approximately 850 schools had been connected to date, and DoC noted that it had played its part in making the connections possible, but the computers, the responsibility of the Department of Basic Education, were not provided. The DoC was now requesting further funding to be able to complete the project. The third set of questions related to the apparent attempts to downplay the successes of the South African Information and Communication sector, primarily as result of the role it played in advanced the interest of developing nations to the disadvantage of more technologically advanced nations. There had been some difficulties in the relationship with American counterparts but it was hoped that this would soon be resolved.
Members also enquired about the funding of the SABC, urging that it should receive sufficient to allow it to operate effectively as a public broadcaster. They requested lists of connected schools and community radio stations, and wanted more detail on broadband penetration figures.
Department of Communications: Strategic Plan 2013- 2018 & 2013 Annual Performance Plan
The Chairperson noted the apology from the Director-General, Department of Communications.
Mr Buthelezi, Deputy Director General, Department of Communications, said that the Department of Communications (DoC or the Department) operated in a rapidly expanding and fast paced environment that posed its own unique band of challenges. He mentioned, for example, that cellular telephones entered the South African market merely as a pilot project yet the nearly universal presence they now commanded in the South African communication environment was indicative of the pace of technological development in the communications sector. The Department had to be consistently and rapidly responsive to adjust to exponentially unfolding developments.
One of the major problems that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) faced was in relation to collection of monies, because approximately R600 million was currently still owed to ICASA from various parties. This was one of the main purposes behind the amendments contained in the ICASA Amendment Bill .
Mr Buthelezi said that some countries were concertedly working to minimise South Africa’s achievement in the domain of Information and communications technology because of the strong position South Africa asserted in advancing the interests of developing nations at the expense of some of the technologically more established nations.
Ms L Mabija (Limpopo, ANC) asked why only 54% of targeted schools were connected to WAN installation.
A Departmental delegate said the project mentioned in the presentation referred to approximately 850 schools that were connected to the internet. This project was undertaken jointly by the Department of Basic Education and the DoC. The DoC was to ensure the provision of the internet connection points and the Department of Basic Education took responsibility to provide the computers. Unfortunately, although the internet connections were provided as planned, the computers failed to materialise. The DoC had since requested additional funding from the Treasury to acquire the computers.
The Department of Basic Education also selected which schools would benefit from this project and the DoC could not speak to the selection criterion that was applied. However, DoC undertook to furnish the committee with the names of the schools who benefited from this project.
Mr Buthelezi said the Department would gladly forward more comprehensive answers to the Committee at a later stage. He acknowledged that, despite being the Department of Communication, the Department had in fact not communicated very effectively on its functions.
Mr Z Mlenzana (COPE, Eastern Cape) referred to the SABC and asked what percentage of the DoC’s budget went to this entity, for whom government was the sole shareholder.
A delegate from the Department said funding the SABC as the public broadcaster was critically important and it must not be left to struggle along on its own. However, he referred to the presentation and noted that only a small percentage of requested funding for the SABC was approved. As a broadcaster, the SABC was continuously facing assertive competition from the private sector and found itself straddling a challenging tightrope between its public broadcaster mandate and the demanding commercial and economic imperatives. The SABC had to transform on many levels including replacing some equipment and infrastructure to prepare for the digital migration. He said this would require substantial operational expenditure, and timeous provision had to be made for this. He also added that the SABC received approximately 17 % of the total DOC budget.
Mr M Jacobs (Free State, ANC) asked for list of the schools that were connected to the internet. He asked whether all district municipalities had a community radio station.
Mr Buthelezi said there was a list of newly licensed radio stations in the presentation, but it was not an exhaustive list of all community radio stations. He promised to forward the list of affected schools to the Committee.
Mr R Tau (Northern Cape, ANC) referred to the “conspiracy theory” that Mr Buthelezi had alluded to early, and asked what the Department was doing to mitigate the impact of this in general. However, he also asked what it was doing about the downgrading of South Africa’s performance in the Information Technology sector and projections around Kenya performance in the same area.
Mr Buthelezi said the Department was engaging with its American counterparts in an attempt to heal their damaged relationship, which became strained by South Africa placing developing countries’ interests first in international IT discussions. The Department saw a strengthening in its relationship with the EU and the French in particular, and said that ‘in this process the Americans will be managed ‘.
The United Arab Emirates and China had also been in positive communication with the Department. Recently the various states had started aligning and forming common positions, using the collective size and might, as a bargaining strategy. He said this was a new approach to conducting business in the ITU.
Mr Tau said that, to the ordinary South African, the main function of the Department of Communication was overseeing the SABC. He said the Department was not doing enough to inform the public of all the other work that it was doing, and asked how DoC would remedy this.
Mr Buthelezi said the Department initiated the ‘Nation at Work”, which was broadcast on the SABC channels, as a mouth piece to communicate the vast field of activities in which the Department was engaged in, and to state how its work impacted on citizens daily. The “Nation at Work” program would also be broadcast on radio in future and reach the many South Africans who relied on this medium for their information and entertainment. He again indicated that the communications from his Department could have been better.
The Chairperson said there had been some controversy on the broadband penetration figures. She asked the Department to communicate regularly with Parliament, as Members had a duty to communicate the activities of state departments to their constituents.
The Chairperson asked whether a ring fenced budget was allocated for the distribution of set top boxes, and whether South Africa would meet the digital migration deadlines as scheduled.
Mr Buthelezi said the Department had already begun the digital migration awareness campaigns, but due to limited funding, had been primarily focussing on communicating to a limited number of key stakeholders.
In April 2013 the campaign would be turning its attention to the broader public, and explaining the digital migration on a grassroots level would start in earnest. He emphasised, though, that the Department was still trying to acquire sufficient funding for this comprehensive marketing campaign.
Another delegate from the Department said all the analogue switch off and digital migration processes were well covered by the Department of Trade and Industry’s infrastructure, and there was no concerns with meeting the digital migration deadlines. The only existing challenges to meeting the digital migration deadlines were the provision of set top boxes. Each television set required a set top box to access digital TV, therefore it was essential that the distribution of set top boxes was resolved timeously. He emphasised that the switch from the current analogue medium to digital was entirely dependent on the successful resolution of the set top boxes question.
The broadband penetration figure given at the time was the DOC’s own estimate, which was given when the baseline study was not yet completed. These estimates were solely based on government activities and did not factor in future initiatives that the private sector subsequently undertook.
Mr Mlenzana said that in some areas Mr Buthelezi seemed to forget that he was dealing with the people who represent the provinces, but he was very mindful of the challenges the Department had to contend with, especially in ensuring uniform implementation and interpretation of Departmental policy.
Mr Mlenzana thought that Mr Buthelezi had been very diplomatic concerning the Digital Migration process (as it was referred to in the presentation of slide 4). He asked Mr Buthelezi to take the Committee into his confidence and explain the matter in more depth, if it was at all possible. He added that if there were any constraints and he was unable to discuss the current status of the Digital Migration case the committee would understand.
Mr Buthelezi said the Minister initially commissioned Set Top Boxes to be piloted by Sentech but SABC and ETV later combined and tried to marginalise Sentech’s activities. ETV wanted to bolster itself in the set top box market and the matter evolved into a contest between broadcasters and Sentech. Mr Buthelezi said in his view the sitting judge was not well informed of the nuances of cyber law. He emphasised that cyber law was a very intricate field and there were very few experts in South Africa.
Mr M Jacobs (Free State, ANC) said it was disconcerting that that such a noble project had now become a white elephant, when the computers were not allocated to schools as promised.
In relation to the STB issue, he said that if the judge sitting on the matter did not understand the intricacies of the cyber law issues, then it was the respective legal representatives’ responsibility to clarify the judge’s understanding.
Mr Buthelezi said the Department had not appealed the outcome of the hearing, but agreed with the Chairperson that the matter was still sub judice.
The Chairperson thanked the Department for an interesting meeting and requested that it remain in constant communication with Parliament
The meeting was adjourned.
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