The Select Committee on Public Enterprises and Communication was briefed in a virtual meeting by the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies on the progress of the rollout of Phase 2 of the SA Connect project.
The Deputy Minister said SA Connect was a flagship programme representing government’s broadband policy to bridge the digital divide in the country, and to ensure that the unconnected were connected. The target was to connect at least 80% of South African households to the internet within the next three years. The Department, together with Treasury, had appointed BroadBand Infraco (BBI), Sentech and the State Information and Technology Agency (SITA) to assist in the implementation of the programme. The Department had been allocated R3b over the next two years to implement the programme, but austerity measures had resulted in a 15% budget cut for the first year. The Department was very excited about the project, and he and the Minister had gone to Mt Ayliff in the Alfred Nzo district in the Eastern Cape to launch Phase 2 of the SA Connect project, where they had come across the moving experiences of South Africans who had got connected to the internet for the first time.
The Department addressed the community wi-fi and household coverage plan, and the extent of coverage. It gave an update on the broadband status; described the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa's (ICASA’s) social obligation plan and its highlights; and pointed out the project's economic benefits. It reported that all project approvals and governance documents had been concluded, and BBI and Sentech would implement an open access broadband network to provide wholesale connectivity services. SA Connect’s proof of concept commenced in May, and 970 households and five wi-fi hotspots had been connected in the Alfred Nzo and Waterberg district municipalities.
Through the Presidential Employment Stimulus, government provided incentives to private operators to deploy broadband infrastructure in low-income areas that were not commercially viable, and BBI had been appointed by the Department to manage the Broadband Access Fund and connectivity. As at October, 5 479 households and 188 community wi-fi hotspots had been connected in various districts in South Africa. SITA had a planned target of 14 700 government offices and police stations, and approximately 7 000 have been connected. BBI, Sentech and SITA had established an enterprise and supplier development strategy. The estimated number of small, medium and micro enterprises (SMME) opportunities required for the programme were 75 companies, and over 4 600 jobs would be created.
Members asked if the Department was still on track to meet its objectives regarding ICT connectivity. What were the challenges which made it difficult for citizens to have reliable access, and what were the plans of the Department to address those challenges? Was SA Connect partnering with district municipalities to provide training to government institutions and people in remote rural villages?
They asked if the DCDT was interacting with the Department of Education, and how it could ensure that other departments complemented this initiative.
Deputy Minister's overview
Mr Philly Mapulane, Deputy Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), said SA Connect was a flagship programme representing government’s broadband policy to bridge the digital divide in the country, and to ensure that the unconnected were connected. The target was to connect at least 80% of South African households to the internet within the next three years.
The Department, together with National Treasury, had agreed to appoint two of its entities, BroadBand Infraco (BBI) and Sentech, together with the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) to assist in the implementation of the programme. The Department had already been allocated R3b over the next two years to implement the programme, but austerity measures had been put in place in the medium-term budget policy statement (MTBPS), and this programme was also affected. The revenue of government was continuing to decline, and was impacted by the cost of borrowing money. The economy had to grow beyond the estimated 0.9% to about 3%.
The Department was very excited about the project. He and the Minister had gone to Mt Ayliff in the Alfred Nzo district of the Eastern Cape to launch Phase 2 of the SA Connect project, where they had come across the moving experiences of South Africans who had got connected to the internet for the first time.
SA Connect project
Mr Tinyiko Ngobeni, Deputy Director-General (DDG): ICT Infrastructure Development and Support, DCDT, said SA Connect comprised a number of sub-programmes led by the government and the private sector. The presentation would look mainly at government-led programmes.
The focus of government’s areas of connectivity were households, traditional authority offices, schools, health facilities, libraries and government offices. Government offices were done by SITA, while the rest were done by BBI and Sentech, which partnered with small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) in the different district municipalities. BBI and Sentech built the infrastructure close to where the communities were, and the SMMEs provided the last mile of connectivity. This would connect 5.5m households to the internet.
Telecommunications companies (telcos) would provide connectivity to 18 500 schools, 8 200 tribal leadership offices, 5 700 health facilities and 579 libraries. SITA would provide connectivity to 14 300 government offices and police stations. He provided a breakdown of the wi-fi hotspots and the household coverage for each district municipality in all the provinces that were planned to be rolled out over the next three financial years.
In terms of progress, he said all project approvals and governance documents had been concluded, including the master service agreement, the service level agreement, the project charter and the implementation plan. BBI and Sentech would implement an open-access broadband network to provide wholesale connectivity services. The R1.1 billion budget for Year One had been cut by 15%, thus reducing the current target for community wi-fi hotspots of 9 900 to 8 415, and the total number of sites from the initial 33 539 to 32 055.
Mr Rendani Musetha, Chief Director: SA Connect, said SA Connect’s proof of concept had commenced in May 2023, and 970 households and five wi-fi hotspots had been connected in the Alfred Nzo and Waterberg district municipalities. Currently, 412 schools and clinics, 5 731 households, and 1 000 public wi-fi hotspots were connected
Through the Presidential Employment Stimulus, the government provided incentives to private operators to deploy broadband infrastructure in low-income areas that were not commercially viable. BBI had been appointed by the Department to manage the Broadband Access Fund, and connectivity under the Fund. The pilot was envisaged to be implemented by March 2024. The Broadband Access Fund rollout target was 50 000 households and 3 000 community wi-fi hotspots. As at October, 5 479 households and 188 community wi-fi hotspots had been connected in various districts in South Africa.
SITA had a planned target of 14 700 government offices and police stations, and approximately 7 000 had been connected. The target for the current financial year was 1 474, of which 1 023 had been completed.
In terms of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa's (ICASA's) social obligation plan for telcos that had received spectrum allocations, he said the data submitted by provinces indicated 21 105 sites, which was fewer than the anticipated 33 059 sites in total. He referred to the connectivity standards expected from telcos, and their service and infrastructure costs.
Regarding the economic benefits, he said BBI, Sentech, and SITA had established an enterprise and supplier development strategy. The estimated number of SMME opportunities required for the programme was 75 companies, and over 4 600 jobs would be created.
(See attached document for further details)
Deputy Minister Mapulane said the economic spin-off of the connectivity to someone who had not been connected and now had unlimited connectivity, was difficult to explain. SA Connect was exciting because it would change the lives of people who had not been connected before. United Nations statistics indicated that one-third of the world remained unconnected.
The Chairperson said that without connectivity, South Africa would remain a primitive nation.
Ms W Ngwenya (ANC, Gauteng) said SA Connect wanted to meet the National Development Plan (NDP) technology goals of building an inclusive information society. Was the Department still on track to meet its objectives regarding ICT connectivity? What were the challenges in terms of access that made it difficult for citizens to have reliable access? To what extent did those challenges affect SA Connect's ability to deliver on its mandate? What were the Department's plans to address those challenges? On slide 3, which district municipality was scheduled for completion in December 2023? Was SA Connect partnering with district municipalities to provide training to government institutions and people in remote rural villages, and could they provide tracking plans?
Ms T Modise (ANC, North West) said several service providers, such as Telkom, were involved in the project. How did one ensure that the quality of wi-fi signals was not compromised, seeing they were using different networks?
Ms L Bebee (ANC, KwaZulu-Natal) commended the Deputy Minister and Department on a job well done in all the provinces and KZN, where she had personally witnessed it.
The Chairperson said there had been a major divide between the urban and rural areas. This initiative would bring new impetus into the country's economy, and rural spaces would also be ready for business. There was a need to ensure they created smart villages, apart from smart cities. He appreciated the attempt to transform rural areas from dead economies to vibrant and productive economies. He lived in a rural area, and knew what it meant not to have internet connectivity. This programme was a clear demonstration of a state creating an enabling environment.
Referring to connectivity going to schools, he asked if the DCDT was interacting with the Department of Education, and how it would ensure that other departments complemented this initiative. He said the Department must ensure that quality materials were used for infrastructure. He asked whether there was a monitoring mechanism for the rollout as he had seen plastic poles being used in a different instance, and these poles were already burnt out.
Mr Ngobeni responded to the question as to whether the Department is still on track to meet its objectives of building an inclusive information society through ICT connectivity and meeting the technology goals of the NDP, as the five-year medium term expenditure framework (MTEF) target, which ended next year, was to achieve 80% affordable internet access. He said that according to the latest Stats SA statistics, 78% of households had access to the internet, while other international bodies put it at 76-77%.
On the challenges to having reliable access, he said load-shedding did affect connectivity, but service providers invested in generators, although logistics sometimes did delay projects.
He referred to SA Connect partnering with district municipalities to provide training to government institutions and people in remote rural villages, and said they could provide tracking plans. The Department had an extensive digital skills programme, and a digital skills summit was recently held in East London. The intention was to massify different skills to different stakeholders, which would complement the programme. The main challenge with municipalities was that the protocols were not standardised, but the recent deployment policy and the model by-law published by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) was trying to address this issue to roll out the programme rapidly.
On ensuring the quality of wi-fi signals which were not compromised, he said wi-fi worked through meeting certain conditions of ICASA. The technology was such that the multiple technologies of the service providers were able to co-exist. It was more about adequate coverage and covering the periphery. On handover, the performance was measured to ensure it met performance targets.
On whether the DCDT was interacting with the Department of Education for the provisioning of devices, he said there had been interactions with various departments, particularly the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Department of Health (DoH) since inception. The DBE wanted the Department to provide devices, but it would only be the provision of connectivity. Different provinces had different programmes to take advantage of the connectivity. Some schools, for example, used existing devices. The Department had engaged with COGTA but the number of facilities that ICASA had allocated to the operators to be connected was way less than what the Department had anticipated. It appeared that the challenge was that the information supplied had not included the geographical coordinates and addresses. The Department was still in engagement with ICASA to engage with the operators to allow COGTA to gather the necessary information.
On leveraging existing infrastructure, he said that this was in alignment with current legislation, which was to promote infrastructure sharing, and it was encouraged.
Deputy Minister Mapulane thanked Members for their compliments.
Responding on whether they would reach the NDP technology goals targets, he said they were on their way to reaching them, and it might be done even earlier than was anticipated in the NDP. The majority of the communities were connected through mobile networks, and the Department wanted to roll out broadband connectivity so that it might surpass the targets.
On the training initiatives, he said the Department had a strategy called the National Digital and Future Skills Strategy which had been approved by Cabinet and had been developed into a five-year implementation plan. For society to have the full benefit of the digital transformation taking place, one required skills from digital literacy to advanced skills. At the East London conference held on 26-27 October, the Department had received pledges from industry to upskill the nation so that they could fully participate in the digital era.
On whether there was a monitoring mechanism for the roll out, he said that arising from the spectrum auction in March 2022, the Department and the mobile network operators had agreed for social obligations to be imposed, and had allocated it in proportion to the spectrum they obtained, so the operators would be responsible for these targets. There were, for example, 18 000 schools identified as a target, but there was way less than that number. The operators had to connect the school with uncapped wi-fi at 10MB/s. The technology they used would be up to them.
He agreed with the Chairperson on the need to bridge the rural- urban divide, and connectivity was the best way to bridge that divide. The choice of Mt Ayliff as a proof of concept to start the second phase demonstrated the Department's bias in connecting the unconnected in marginalised communities. The Alfred Nzo district was regarded as one of the poorest areas in South Africa. The Department was not going to the affluent areas but targeting the marginalised communities. That was the DCDT's strategy, and it was a conscious and deliberate step.
He said there would be a lot of employment opportunities. The model, through BBI and Sentech providing the core networks and SMMEs and service providers providing the last mile of connectivity, would also create job opportunities.
He agreed with the Chairperson on involvement with the traditional leaders, and had set a target of connectivity to traditional leaders' offices, as they were at the centre of activities.
The Chairperson thanked the Department’s team, and said he would be watching the rollout with keen interest.
The meeting was adjourned.
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