Telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele. File picture: Patrick Mtolo

Johannesburg - South Africa’s government has finally moved ahead with a long-awaited information telecoms policy, catching up on tech that has substantially advanced in the two decades since the last policy.

Yesterday morning, Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Siyabonga Cwele had a media briefing at which he said a National Integrated Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Policy White Paper had been approved by the cabinet.

This wide-ranging policy is set to be gazetted today.

South Africa’s ICT industry has been waiting for this policy since 2012, when the former minister - the now disgraced Dina Pule - set it in motion. The lack of such a policy has also been broadly blamed for the government’s inability to free up needed spectrum for broadband. The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) has, for the second time, tried to auction high-demand spectrum to operators and has, yet again, been thwarted.

Each time, the authority has come up short because it does not have the requisite permission from the government in the form of policy to move ahead. This time, its latest endeavour to bypass this obstacle was struck down by a court.

Now, the policy it - and many others - have been awaiting is set to finally be gazetted, having been approved by the cabinet on September 28. However, the policy is incredibly wide-ranging.

Ellipsis founder Dominic Cull told Business Report yesterday that the new policy was incredibly broad, covering aspects such as spectrum, infrastructure, literacy, law and policy.

In effect, it meant South Africa was starting a new ICT cycle when it came to dealing with ICT, he said.

Cull said this policy had been in the making since 2012, but had been needed since just after the dawn of democracy - which is how old the previous policy is.

Host of changes

Since then, the country has seen the advent of mobile telephony, over-the-the-top providers - such as Facebook and WhatsApp - and a host of other changes. “Policy has been pretty much static for 20 years, while technology and communications have changed completely.”

Among the changes the policy proposes are functions that institutions such as the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (Usaasa) performs will now fall under Cwele.

Usaasa’s mandate is to ensure universal access to ICT and it has also been embroiled in a lengthy dispute over its awarding of contracts to provide the needed decoders so South Africa can move to digital TV (and free up spectrum).

That award is now on hold, delaying digital migration further after the country missed the deadline in the middle of last year.

Cull noted while there would be upheaval in the sector, the government was finally moving forward, and the lack of policy was no longer an excuse. Issues that had lagged, pending policy, included the rapid deployment of infrastructure, net neutrality and governance, Cull said.

However, industry veteran Adrian Schofield said a ten-year view was all well and good; the question was whether the government could move quickly enough to implement, especially given the pace at which technology was advancing.

BUSINESS REPORT