Since lockdown began in March an issue that has plagued South Africa was brought into even sharper relief – connectivity.
The cost of data, lack of coverage and in some areas and lack of infrastructure altogether meant that many South Africans who had struggled to connect to the internet before, were now completely out of luck.
There was no going into an office to check emails or heading to a public WiFi hotspot during lockdown and this has highlighted the need for South Africa to tackle the issue of connectivity head on.
Somebody who has noted how lockdown has highlighted the issues with connectivity in South Africa is MzansiSat chief operations officer, Victor Stephanopoli.
The COO says that the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in South Africa’s ICT networks and highlighted the inequality created by the lack of connectivity for some South Africans. Where some people are able to keep working from home and secure their jobs, others don’t have that option and the reasons for this, according to Stephanopoli can be traced back to 2005.
“South Africa reached a critical period between 2005 and 2010 when investment in new infrastructure was essential. For various political reasons, this did not happen. Then the country entered the widely reported state capture phase and all investments aimed at healthcare, telecoms or infrastructure and energy projects, amongst other initiatives, were syphoned away,” explains the COO.
When lockdown began ICASA invited South African network operators and telcos to apply for additional spectrum. This was done so that networks could increase capacity during lockdown and cater to the large influx of people working from home.
While it was a great gesture, it came years after local network operators had all but begged that spectrum be made available as it was necessary for both network expansion and to cope with demand.
And yet, here we sit in the midst of a pandemic where some folks are able to keep their jobs because they have internet and others can’t because of the failings of those who were and are in power.
Is that at all fair when the technology is available and the only thing holding network operators back is government and bureaucratic red tape?
What angers us is that according to Stephanopoli, the South African government is not all that eager to engage with network operators on that topic.
“We are having constructive discussions with a variety of African countries, who understand the importance of our offering, that is, that there is already a satellite in orbit and it can reach areas that are not viable for undersea cables. We need clearer guidance from the South African government on what needs to happen next,” says Stephanopoli.
This is not new though as Vodacom has time and time again mentioned in its yearly results that spectrum is vital to expanding its network. We’ve seen countless trials of 5G in South Africa with Huawei and Ericsson. The tech is here, but it’s gathering dust because of the aforementioned red-tape.
Make no mistake, we are not saying that nothing has been done to try to solve this issue.
The cost of data is a constant issue of debate among civilians and politicians alike, but even if 1GB of data costs R1, it doesn’t help if a person cannot get online in the first place.
So what needs to happen then?
“I think we also need to create a culture in the country where we admit we are wrong and then find workable solutions. This requires transparency, disclosure of numbers and the highlighting of challenges that need to be addressed,” proposes Stephanopoli.
And we fully agree with that sentiment, but government has shown us time and time again that transparency is hard to come by.
But we’re hopeful of change and hopeful that this pandemic will highlight the importance of connectivity.
Sure, some folks are using the internet to binge watch series but many more need to be able to get online in order to work, study or just simply communicate with family and friends.
“Surely this is paramount now, especially in light of a pandemic like Covid-19 highlighting the need for better infrastructure throughout the country to safeguard national security and maintain existing services?” Stephanopoli asks.
It is paramount Victor, we just hope we’re not the only ones who are asking that question.[Image (cropped) – CC BY SA 2.0 ben dalton]