The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Policy White Paper, which was released last October by the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS), is an ambitious document filled with many good ideas. It is essential that South Africa’s ICT policy framework ensures the maximum value is extracted from the potential contribution which the ICT industry can make to transformation and economic growth. The new rapid deployment policy is thus to be commended!
A good idea, however, does not always translate into good implementation, especially not considering the track-record of the South African government. With no indication that SA Connect will achieve its targets, why should we believe that new good policies would be properly implemented?
The existing structures which regulate the industry have not performed well, with the appalling delay in the rolling out of digital migration and allocation of radio frequency spectrum. However, there is no reason to suppose that creating new structures and bureaucracy will solve this problem. Rather than embarking on such a foolhardy venture, the existing structures must be fixed and granted independence where appropriate.
Introducing another industrial monopoly, as the DTPS appears to intend with the single Wireless Open Access Network, is not an example of a good idea. In fact, both the idea and the implementation will have the same, detrimental result in this industry as we have seen with other monopolies in other industries: Political interference, no competition and thus high prices.
The Telkom monopoly never succeeded in the apparent goal of increasing fixed-line penetration and the Second National Operator did not increase competition in the fixed-line market. There is ample room for competitive full-service providers alongside service provision at the wholesale level, and while infrastructure-sharing arrangements may make sense in order to reduce duplication of investment, monopolisation is not the answer.
Two principles must be adhered to in the regulation of the ICT industry. Firstly, the government must approach ICT from a ‘light touch’ perspective; and secondly, any policy must be technologically-neutral. Both these principles come down to one reality in this particular industry: Everything changes, all of the time.
What we regard as the norm of technology today will most likely have changed substantially in five years; the same is often not true for other industries like mining and agriculture. A heavy-handed approach which constrains innovation and out-of-the-box thinking will cause South Africa to fall behind technological development around the world and in Africa.
It is, unfortunately, apparent from the White Paper that the DTPS is less interested in facilitating the expansion of access to communications technology, than it is in controlling the ICT industry. There is no evidence supporting the notion that changing the structures governing the industry will lead to more access, but it is clear that it will increase government dominance.
Rather than focusing on this direct intervention in an otherwise well-performing industry, the government should focus its efforts on drastically improving the education of our young people in the STEM subjects and driving improved vocational training through partnerships between employers and institutions. There can be no ICT industry without the skills to design, create, implement and support the solutions that drive our future as a nation.
The ICT Policy White Paper contains many good ideas, and, I hope, is an indication of the government’s willingness engage constructively with the beneficial contribution the ICT industry has made and will make to South African society. Unfortunately, it also contains very bad ideas, and we are not assured that even the good ideas will be well implemented, or implemented at all. There is still much to be discussed and ironed out before the DTPS tries to start the process of implementation.