Despite South Africa’s Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services being created more than a year ago, minister Siyabonga Cwele still refers to it as a “new department” – but he is well aware of the challenges ahead.
During the annual SATNAC conference last week, Cwele said his department is very clear on the outcomes it needs to achieve, but that there are a few problems that need addressing first.
“There are bottlenecks preventing the market from moving forward. We are a new department with very clear outcomes and a mandate that we must drive broadband properly for South Africa and facilitate that in large,” he told journalists.
Keen to move forward
He added that in order to hit all the targets set out by the National Development Plan for 2020, personnel in the department need to be trained properly. He maintains, however, that his department is keen to move forward.
While increasing broadband, telecommunications and general connectivity in South Africa is of a high priority, SA needs to do a lot more if it wants to compete on a global scale, he said.
“In global standings, we are not doing well, but we need to sort out all the issues of access, so that we can leap-frog into the Top 30 in the world,” he said. According to the minister, South Africa is currently in 76th position in terms of broadband and connectivity. It was for that reason the government brought back the State Information Technology Agency (Sita) and Broadband Infraco.
It is not only about ratings however, as South Africa has a plan to accelerate the rollout of broadband to government offices across the country. By linking offices to a high-speed network, it will be able to assist customers much faster.
“We need to increase service delivery through the use of the internet. The Department of Home Affairs has an important task of rolling out the new ID cards, but with internet speeds of 256KB/s they are not going to get to it. That is why we need to connect them faster.”
Think about government offices, and one’s mind tends to dwell on departments like Home Affairs and the Licensing Department which can be a nightmare to deal with, but imagine if you could be helped faster while at the Post Office or police station. Well, that is the plan if Cwele’s ambitions are made real.
“At the speed of the Post Office, it has the longest queues – so we want to improve service delivery. At police stations, we have lost some files, so they also need to be upgraded. If the internet was functioning correctly, all these service delivery issues would be solved.”
Post office a priority
Cwele went on to explain that his Department is looking at new services and that the old ones already in place will get upgraded in a timely fashion. Since the postal service is part of his mandate, a priority has been set on making sure that the post office is as efficient as it can be.
Ultimately, the aim of the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Service is to create an information society by 2030. That might pose a huge challenge, as many government departments are struggling to get things in order to hit their 2020 targets.
Cwele is however aware of this.
“We can’t set low targets, and we need a strong leadership [to drive this]. It also needs a lot of resources as broadband is expensive. We have been working with the National Treasury on this, and once the backhaul infrastructure has been set up, many businesses will follow.”
Resources could be one of the stumbling blocks, but Cwele said one thing that needs to change which money can’t buy is a change in mindset.
“The challenge is that we need to change the mindset [of people]. We are not just an ordinary department, but we need to drive the economy. That is the challenge, and we need to confront it now. Everybody needs to be up to scratch.”
A change in mindset could come with a change in leadership.
“We need people who understand the industry,” Cwele said, “but we also need people with leadership.”
The leadership he was referring to, Cwele explained, are leaders that embrace the 2020 vision. “We shouldn’t only be happy with it, but we should implement it. To achieve 2030, you need to know what you need for 2020.”
The finish line for 2030 is only 15 years away, and at the break-neck pace technology moves, time is one of the most obviously hurdles that could trip us up.
“Innovation is bigger than us, it moves faster than us,” Cwele concluded.
What all of this actually means for broadband and connectivity in the country is unclear, but at least Cwele appears to understand the urgency of bringing the country’s internet access standards up to scratch. Whether it will happen on schedule, meanwhile, is anyone’s guess.