The industry can be forgiven for suffering from “colloquium fatigue”. Politicians get up on stage and make grand promises that there will be change for the better, only for the industry to be disappointed when little or nothing happens while the country continues slipping down the world broadband rankings.
The colloquium was certainly well run, though it was outsourced to Deloitte, so that’s perhaps not unexpected. Right on cue, new communications minister Dina Pule and her director-general, Rosey Sekese, took to the stage, promising a full review of information and communications technology policy — a green paper this year, a white paper in 2013 and new legislation in 2014.
But the industry and consumers have heard these promises before. Siphiwe Nyanda undertook to tackle high telecoms prices, but appeared to waste most of his time in internecine warfare with his director-general, Mamodupi Mohlala. His successor, Roy Padayachie, made the right noises and was much more engaged than Nyanda, but President Jacob Zuma redeployed him before he had a chance to shine, if he was ever going to.
Like her predecessors, Pule is promising big changes. But the industry is now deeply sceptical of the ruling party’s promises. Steve Song, a former fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation who now runs Village Telco, a company that wants to take cheap broadband to rural areas by making clever use of radio frequency spectrum, expressed dismay last week at yet another industry talk shop.
“I hate saying negative things about the ANC,” Song wrote in a blog post. “For such a long period of my life, the ANC has represented the spirit of justice, of resilience, of endurance in the face of overwhelming odds that it is hard to bring myself to criticise [it] openly. But, like William Shatner in a corset, sometimes you have to recognise that things have changed.”
Song wrote the ANC had “failed to take telecoms seriously” and had “consistently relegated communications as a junior ministry and appointed ministers for reasons other than their competence or vision”.
The result, he said, has been the “unhappy, bitter, finger-pointing environment that we have today”.
There were a few notable exceptions, but many industry players I spoke to at the colloquium said they felt this was probably going to be yet another talk shop. Will Pule be redeployed if Zuma takes umbrage at an unfavourable report on the SABC, which falls under her ambit? Speculation is that politics at the public broadcaster resulted in Padayachie’s redeployment.
The technology sector in SA is in urgent need of a strong political leader. Pule’s legacy will be determined by how she deals with the management of scarce radio frequency spectrum in the “digital dividend” bands below 850MHz that broadcasters must cede to the telecoms industry in the next few years. The wrong approach or more unnecessary delays will cost the SA economy dearly; the right decisions will lift GDP and create jobs.
Unfortunately, Pule appears set to repeat the mistakes of her predecessors. Instead of encouraging maximum competition in the sector, indications are she wants state-owned Sentech, which has failed at previous attempts to be a telecoms operator, to take broadband to rural communities. Instead of forcing Sentech to give up its valuable radio spectrum to private players that can make more effective use of it, Pule is placing her faith, at least in part, on government being both a player and a referee in telecoms.
That’s a recipe for failure.