Universal Service Agency and Sentech: briefings

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Meeting report

Portfolio Committee on Education

LABOUR AND PUBLIC ENTERPRISES SELECT COMMITTEE
23 June 2004
UNIVERSAL SERVICE AGENCY AND SENTECH: BRIEFINGS

Acting Chairperson
: Ms N.D. Ntwanambi (ANC, Western Cape)

Relevant documents:
Presentation by Universal Service Agency
Presentation by Sentech

SUMMARY
The Universal Service Agency briefed the committee about the role and function of the agency. They gave an overview of the projects they were busy with and also focused on their goals for the year ahead. The discussion focussed primarily on the multi purpose community centres.

Sentech briefed the committee on who they were and especially on the advantages of digitisation. They stressed the urgent need for a national digitisation policy. They also made a case for them being allowed to compete with Telkom and criticised the currently expensive call charges.

MINUTES
Universal Service Agency presentation
Sam Gulube (Chief Executive Officer) represented the Universal Service Agency (USA). He explained to the committee that the USA was not a well-known agency. It was established in 1997 with a mandate to improve access to the information and communication technologies in the under serviced areas. Initially it was only access to telephones but in 2001 the Telecommunications Act was amended to include all applications of information and communications technologies. In 2002 the first board of the USA was appointed.

Discussion
Ms Ntwanambi (ANC, Western Cape) asked why the numbers of telecentres in the Western Cape are lower than in the rest of the country. She enquired whether local governments and provinces were consulted in making decisions about the nodal points. She also wondered how they identified which community must get what when they put up community access points.

Mr Van Rooyen (ANC, Free State) expressed his concern about the amount of R500 000 subsidised for the needy in their budget. He added that in terms of their mandate the USA have to subsidise the needy. R500 000 is gross under spending and they are not taking their mandate very seriously. He also asked about the fact that the telecentres management and ownership is entirely in the hands of community-based entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship by nature is profit driven and according to the presentation these community centres are non-profit organisations. How did this work, he wanted to know. He also wanted to know why certain telecentres were under performing. There was also mention of the rollout of a thousand cyber labs in the next three years. They are currently far away from meeting the target. In addition, he wanted to know what the problems facing them were or whether it had been included in the report to look good to certain people.

Ms Ndalane (ANC, Limpopo) stated that they had already trained 500 teachers in this financial year and wanted to know whether more teachers would be trained.

Mr Gamede (ANC, KwaZulu-Natal) asked for clearer information on where exactly the nodal points were. He also enquired about the role of the nodal centres in fighting poverty and creating employment. He especially mentioned the plight of the youth, women and people with disabilities.

Mr Sinclair (NNP, Northern Cape) asked for a broader picture on the role of the USA in the whole communications set-up in South Africa. He was also unclear about the difference between the USA and the Universal Service Agency Fund.

Mr Gulube replied firstly to the question on the role of the USA. They are currently finishing their annual report and would like to present that to Parliament after the recess. The report will be a lot broader in terms of highlighting the issues and problems they are facing. This presentation was a forecast of what they want to do this year.

He explained that the establishment of the USA was part of international best practice and also the first in Africa. There is a lot of interest from other SADC countries. He further explained that the USA administers the Fund and that they are separated in the Act. He explained that 0.1% of the current operators' profit goes towards the fund to bridge the digital divide. He also explained that the whole budget was used to subsidise the needy which was their mandate. The R500 000 was strictly for training.

Mr Gulube confirmed that they were working with local governments. The co-ordination could be improved. On the Western Cape he admitted that it is an area where they have under performed. They are deploying 10 new centres in Khayalitsha this year. Other sites are to be identified. He would supply the committee with a list of the specific sites.

On entrepreneurship he stressed that they want the centres to be run like businesses. He added that all profits would be used as reserve funds and would not go into the pockets of the local entrepreneurs who run the centre.

He explained that they have a rehabilitation programme for the centres that have problems. Their annual report would contain more details.

Sentech presentation

Mr Gladwin Marumo (Chief Operating Officer), Dingane Dube (Executive: Regulatory and Governmental Affairs), Johann Raath (Executive: Office of the COO) and Matime Nchabaleng (Manager: Governmental Relations) represented Sentech.

Mr Marumo explained that they are fully state-owned and that their main challenge currently is a national digitisation policy.

Mr van Rooyen complimented the delegation on Sentech's excellent BEE strategy that he looked up on the Internet. It was clear to him that they were committed.

Ms Themba (ANC, Mpumulanga) asked about Gauteng Online and wanted to know whether there were similar projects in other provinces. She also enquired about the progress made in the pilot-project in the Eastern Cape. She also noted that this delegation is made up of males only and wondered about the role of women in technology.

Mr Gamede asked whether Sentech was suggesting that they could be an operator if given the chance.

Mr Kolweni (ANC) stressed the importance of public awareness education.

Mr Sinclair asked what the feeling of other role-players in the communications fraternity were about Sentech's presentation. He also wondered what cabinet's feeling was about these issues.

Mr van Rooyen asked whether Sentech would be able to provide the necessary infrastructure and signals for the 2010 soccer World Cup. He also enquired about areas in South Africa that are not receiving all the local channels (SABC 1, 2, 3 and e-TV).

Mr Mkono (ANC, Eastern Cape) asked about a satellite station in Sutherland, which he regularly sees from the aeroplane.

Mr Marumo told the committee that their Chief Executive Officer is a woman but that the role of women in science and technology remains a problem. On the pilot project in the Eastern Cape he explained that it is almost finished. He added that one thing they have learnt is that there exists a fear of technology. He mentioned the example of doctors in the Eastern Cape taking a while to accept the new technology in the pilot project. He stressed that the country as a whole was on course in terms of science and technology.

On the position of other role-players he said that in terms of digitisation everyone agrees. There exists a policy vacuum and they believe this has to be filled by the Department of Communications. On other aspects, for instance about services for voice technology, Telkom especially is not so happy. He added that the cost of telecommunications in South Africa was high and they do not know why. He did not want to criticise Telkom but their view is that it could be cheaper. Call centre business should be booming but call charges were too high. It is 400% more expensive than in India according to an article in the Sowetan (23 June 2004). Mr Marumo added that he thinks that they are giving MTN, Cell C and Vodacom very good rates.

On the 2010 soccer World Cup, he explained that they are more than ready and it will be the most technologically interactive World Cup ever.

Mr Dube answered Mr Sinclair's question on the position of the Cabinet. He said that the Minister of Communications admitted recently that it was a mistake when the Telecommunications Amendment Act was promulgated in that it placed restrictions on technology. Voice over Internet protocol was only allowed to Telkom and they acknowledged that it was wrong. That led to the introduction of the Convergence Bill that will be technology neutral.

Mr Nchabaleng explained that they were very keen to get projects like Gauteng Online going in the other provinces. He stressed that Sentech was ready for the provinces and appealed to the committee to help further with this process.

Mr Raath explained that environmental impact assessments had to be done before they can put up any kind of radio or satellite network. This takes between 6 and 9 months and was very expensive. He explained that Sutherland was ideal for radio astronomy and that Sentech was supporting a bid for a very big antenna
to be built there.

Mr Marumo explained that South Africa did not have a satellite and that they are leasing panels on mostly French and American owned satellites.

Mr Raath also explained that the placement of television transmitters depended on where the broadcasters wanted them. The roll out of TV stations happened in accordance with what the SABC asked for.

The chairperson apologised for running out of time and said she looked forward to visiting Sentech, perhaps in August.

The meeting was adjourned.

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