Regional integration can accelerate mobile broadband

Yunus Carrim (South African Minister of Communications speech at the World Mobile Congress Barcelona 25 February 2014.)

  If in this globalised world, in so many areas, we require ever more coordination and cooperation of countries, especially in the same region, surely we require this even more in the area of communications? If there are ever so many forces breaking down national barriers, it is ICT that is perhaps most doing this. So, in a sense, we in the ICT sector, are more forced than those in other areas to work together and cooperate.

 So at the outset we say yes, of course, to regional cooperation on mobile broadband and in other areas of ICT.

We support the basic thrust of the Botswana Communique. We think however that the Communique needs to acknowledge the need for spectrum also for broadcasters as well as for the maritime, military, air flights and remote control industry sectors. We welcome the “Roadmap for Digital Migration” suggested. There also needs to be greater clarity on the structure and role of the Joint Task Force proposed. The Communique needs to be processed through the SADC Communications Ministers structure for it to be legitimate. We suggest that this be done at the forthcoming SADC Communications Ministers meeting.

Over time, we need to consider ensuring greater consistency of the policy and regulatory frameworks of the countries in the SADC, taking into consideration the specific needs of each country. Harmonisation will contribute to an increase in economies of scale which would help in reducing costs.

There is a strong link between investment in broadband, economic growth and job creation. But to ensure the benefits there would have to be a critical mass penetration of broadband and this should ideally be across augur the entire region.

In order to stimulate broadband uptake it is critical that broadband is affordable and universal, and the content is relevant.

We also need to consider encouraging the regulators to look into reducing the cost to communicate across the borders of the SADC countries.

Of course, the European Union is different. But it is interesting that its formation allowed for cross border regulation, particularly of interconnect rates. Whilst it would cost about R1 a minute to call a friend in the same country, it would cost about R10 a minute to call somebody across the border (in some cases less than 5km away). The price differential was due to a lack of cross-border interconnect regulation. The EU changed that, bringing down international call rates within two years to levels comparable to domestic charges.

By ensuring that telecoms operators invest in interconnected networks, neighbouring governments can minimise cross-border communication costs, as well as benefit from economies of scale brought about by consolidated buying power. It doesn’t matter whether the standards are Wi-Fi, fibre-to-the home or LTE. It only matters that the same standard is chosen for the region. Fortunately sub-Saharan African countries have adopted the GSM standard and continue to follow the 3G roadmap.

South Africa supports harmonization of frequency allocation. We actively participate in the SADC process to regularly review the SADC Frequency Plan which seeks to achieve harmonization across SADC. We are also actively participating in the SADC process to influence the release of additional spectrum by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). SADC and Africa as regions, through the African Telecommunications Union, are playing a significant role to harmonise the digital dividend and additional broadband spectrum suitable for Africa. We are also aware of developments in other regions to ensure that we maximize our harmonization effort, to increasing economies of scales benefits.

The Botswana Communique will also help in information sharing between the different countries on broadband. It should also serve to encourage greater cooperation not just between our government departments, but also regulators, operators, internet service providers, technical experts, relevant civil society organisations and other structures.

The Communications Regulatory Authority of Southern Africa (CRASA) needs to be strengthened and work more effectively.

In South African, we adopted our National Broadband Policy and Strategy, “South Africa Connect”, on 4 December 2013. It gives expression to vision in our National Development Plan (NDP) of “a seamless information infrastructure by 2030 that will underpin a dynamic and connected vibrant information society and a knowledge economy that is more inclusive, equitable and prosperous.”

We reviewed the broadband plans from other countries. We also consulted extensively nationally and internationally. We adopted an ecosystem approach to defining broadband by examining the entire broadband value chain (networks, services, applications and content). We have also provided for cooperation of the government and the private sector. Government has a role to enable broadband by creating a predictable policy and regulatory environment, facilitating rapid deployment of infrastructure, capacitating regulatory institutions and acting as an anchor tenant to aggregate government demand for broadband services to make it viable for the private sector to extend networks to areas that are not economically viable. Government will also focus on e-skills development to encourage innovation.

We also realise that success in rolling out broadband depends on an appropriate market structure, clear institutional arrangements and high level state coordination across sectors. We have set broadband targets for the country which will encourage fibre deployment whilst encouraging mobile broadband rollout by releasing, over time, broadband spectrum.

But we are also reviewing our ICT policies and regulations as a whole, and begin public hearings on 3 March on our National Integrated ICT Green Paper.

Back to the Botswana Communique. We welcome the initiative to build capacity of policy makers and regulators in the region in order to benefit from the latest global insights on market regulation. We have to assist each other in building this capacity over time. But we also need to engage with the private sector, including the GSMA. We need effective public-private partnerships in this regard. Obviously, we have differing needs in our different countries, but we can, over time, possibly work together to establish an SADC wide-framework for public-private partnerships to build capacity.

Those countries, like ours, that have access to the ocean and immediate access to international submarine cables need to work with the landlocked countries on extending this to them through fibre so that they can have better international connectivity and reduce prices.

While mobile broadband is crucial, we also need, depending on the circumstances in our specific countries, to also look at fixed-line broadband.

We need to have both supply and demand side approaches to broadband, and here too we can, over time, cooperate.

There are many things that we have to do – and we can only effectively do this if we cooperate more. We won’t be able to do this overnight. We have to be realistic and have an incremental approach. We need to, over time, strengthen the SADC Forum of Communications Ministers, and despite our many other pressing responsibilities have to try to meet more often, as the Botswana Communique also suggests.

And we must focus on our people, especially the poor and disadvantaged. Yes, yes, we hear all the time that a 10% increase in broadband penetration can lead up to a 1.38% growth in GDP, especially in developing countries. But this growth must benefit the poor and disadvantaged equitably. And while broadband and ICT more generally has huge potential to narrow the gap between the rich and poor, it can also, if not managed effectively, increase the divides between the haves and have-nots, between the connected and unconnected in our countries. And that we certainly cannot afford!

We have to ensure that broadband is accessible and affordable. And we must focus on increasing the awareness of our people of the value of the mobile phone and its capacity to provide internet and broadband in particular and the tremendous benefits of this. We need to show them how broadband that help to significantly improve their economic and social circumstances. We need to assist them to be able to use the internet. Broadband is nothing if it doesn’t reach them. And it must. And we as governments, our parliaments, the private sector, civil society organisations, community organisations and whoever have to wage a massive awareness and mobilization campaign.

And finally: it’s obviously not enough that we work more cooperatively and effectively together in the SADC countries. We also need to gradually work closer with other regional structures of Communications Ministers and relevant structures of the continent as a whole.

news@ujuh.co.za

 

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