Failure to provide true, pervasive broadband is criminal

I was debating publishing this post this morning then I came across Gregor’s post with three short segments from his interview with Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales in Cape Town this last week and this video in particular:

He talks a little about SA telecommunications policy and what he said really resonates with my thoughts earlier after reading a bit more from The World is Flat (which I have been wading through for the last year or so). Two of the things Thomas Friedman (the author of The World is Flat) identifies as crucial to enable a country to survive in an increasingly flat world are good infrastructure and access to the common platform used by this new, flat world. To me that platform is the Internet. It comes as no surprise that we have neither the infrastructure or the levels of access that are required to really lift the country as a whole up enough to enable it to begin to compete effectively technologically. Sure we have pockets of innovation but where it the pervasive, fast and reliable broadband access that would give people living in villages out in rural areas an opportunity to tap into the wealth of knowledge and services that are freely available on the Web?

At the moment you need to spend close to R1 000 per month to have a decent broadband connection (well, when the bandwidth is more or less as advertised) and marginally less to just have a decent ADSL connection. Those prices put meaningful connectivity beyond the reach of the vast majority of the population and, in the process, leave millions of South Africans out in the technological wilderness. Telkom’s operating profit for the 6 months ended 30 September 2006 was R7.7 billion off operating revenue of R25.2 billion for the same period (Source: Telkom’s interim results for September 2006). How many ADSL subscribers were there as of 30 September 2006? Roughly 190 172 out of a population of around 47 million people. Telkom is a cash machine living off a small fraction of South Africans at the expense of the rest of the country.

But it isn’t just Telkom at fault here. Our government, which as Jimmy points out has a responsibility to make meaningful Internet access a possibility for all South Africans, is a major shareholder in Telkom and has a vested interest in keeping that cash cow going. Statutory protection of Telkom’s monopoly ceased years ago and yet we still don’t have a real alternative to Telkom. It was only in the last 6 months or so that the government really started talking about making Internet access a priority after years of criticism from the private sector and nothing has happened. In fact, there is a article on ITWeb from about a week ago about how SA’s broadband strategy is on hold. Why? Well, because of shifting goal posts:

Communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri announced in her budget vote speech in May that a broadband advisory council, consisting of international experts, was set up to develop SA’s broadband strategy. Matsepe-Casaburri said she expected the strategy to be presented to her by the end of 2006.

However, the terms of reference that will govern the advisory council still have to be refined, causing delays in the development of the strategy, Modise says.

It was also decided a local task team would be established to draw input from the local ICT sector in developing the strategy, he says. The department now expects to complete the drafting of the strategy by 2008, he adds.

So, by the end of 2008, we may have a draft broadband strategy ready for consideration … over a decade since the Web emerged as a major force in global economic change. How long until we have a final strategy ready to be implemented? How much money must the government make off Telkom before it is ready to make broadband accessible to all South Africans and not just the ones who bleed cash to pay its profit share?

When we finally get to a point where all South Africans have broadband access (some time in the next decade or so, if we are lucky), perhaps then we will be able to look at how South Africa has slipped to the back of the queue in the global economy and perhaps then the people responsible for this sorry state of affairs will be seen as they truly are: criminals who have committed terrible wrongs at the expense of all South Africans out of a desire to maximise their profits and pad their bank accounts even further. Perhaps then, at that hypothetical point in the future, their refusal to act now (or years ago) will be regarded as one of the worst crimes against humanity in this modern, connected age. That is, if anyone still cares about this country then.

Update: I like this quote from Larry Lessig:

He said it was understandable for some countries that depended heavily on the revenue their telecommunications utilities generated, but for SA this should not be the case.

“It is a case of backward telecoms politics. I am surprised it has taken so long for SA to act. There is no good justification for the situation,” Lessig said.

Almost five years after the partial privatisation of Telkom, to prepare the country for telecoms competition, SA still does not have an effective second national operator and consumers pay connection fees that are up to 139% higher than in other countries.

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