The first tender process for the SA Connect programme has been cancelled, and the Democratic Alliance wants to know why.

SA Connect, otherwise known as the South African National Broadband Policy, was adopted almost three years ago and lays out ambitious targets for broadband for all South Africans to be available at speeds of no less than 5Mbps by 2020, rising to 100Mbps by 2030. The strategy outlined in SA Connect is to connect all schools, hospitals and government buildings in the country as a catalyst for building network infrastructure in all areas. But as we’ve reported many times, not a single building has yet been connected to the internet as a result of SA Connect.

Now it appears that the first tender, which took a year to produce, for a company to build out the first pilot phase of the project has been canned by the Department for Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS). In a media advisory sent out this morning DA shadow minister of telecommunications and postal services, Marian Shinn has called on the minister, Dr Siyabonga Cwele, to explain why.

“I have written to the Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Dr Siyabonga Cwele, requesting that he urgently explain why the tender was cancelled and what steps are being taken to revise the procurement phase and implementation of SA Connect,” Shinn said.

During the mid-term budget speech earlier this year, it appeared that some headway had been made.

“In June 2016, the agency issued a bid document inviting prospective service providers to bid for broadband connectivity of the identified sites, and the bids are currently being evaluated. It is anticipated that the procurement process will be completed by the end of October 2016, after which the broadband connection of government buildings and schools will begin,” Treasury said at the time.

That bid document has since been revoked which is likely to further delay the tender process and push back the goal of connecting all South Africans by 2020.

Shinn points out that it was odd Telkom had declined to submit a tender, despite having been once told it was to be the de facto partner for SA Connect (a position that was successfully challenged) and that the current tender seemed tailor made for it.

Cancelling the tender puts the process of South African internet deployment into even more confusion than it is already. In September, the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper was published which seems to suggest network operators should give up their spectrum licences in favour of building open access networks. This has created much uncertainty in the industry, not least because of some vague wording, over how exactly plans to extend broadband networks to areas that aren’t currently commercially viable. Certainly it’s slowed the allocation of new spectrum for LTE services: minister Cwele took the regualtor ICASA to court to block a proposed auction of spectrum licences which didn’t fit the White Paper vision.

As the DA points out SA Connect is vital to insuring that South African’s can access online services. More than that though, as we saw at AfricaCom last week the internet inspires creation and problem solving, something Africa is rather good at provided it has access to tools such as the internet.

Shinn concludes by saying that it is now crunch time for government and it needs to get creative. “Government must now be innovative in requesting broadband solutions from a wider spread of small and large network service providers to deliver affordable and sustainable internet access to all,” Shinn said.

[Image – CC BY/2.0 Armando Alves]