[By Craig Wilson]
The Universal Service and Access Fund was established to bankroll projects that ensure universal access to communications technology for all SA citizens. Instead, a large part of it — if not all of it — is being earmarked for keeping the public watching television when the country switches to digital broadcasts.
Over the next two years, government intends to phase out analogue broadcasts in favour of digital terrestrial television, freeing up valuable spectrum in the process that is ideally suited to providing connectivity to rural and other outlying and underserviced areas.
However, government also realises many South Africans won’t be able to afford the set-top boxes that will be needed to view the new television signals. Its proposed solution is to use the access fund to subsidise the set-top boxes. But is this the best use of the R1bn-plus sitting in the fund?
The bulk of the contributions to the fund have come from the telecommunications industry — not from broadcasters — so it seems bizarre that the money is going to be spent on keeping people watching television.
Television preaches, it doesn’t engage, and although it may inform, it doesn’t encourage participation. Internet access, meanwhile, does all of the above and more. It’s no secret that connectivity in rural areas stinks, but it’s also true that just because an area has connectivity doesn’t mean people have the ability to harness it.
One of the stated objectives of the fund is “financing the construction or extension of electronic communications networks in underserviced areas”. A crucial part of that is getting both the connectivity and the necessary hardware to those areas.
There’s no doubt that Internet access does greater good for a community than the ability to watch soap operas, but there’s also the argument that the Internet provides an even greater array of entertainment than television.
Yes, most people would rather watch Isidingo on TV than, say, video podcasts of TED conferences on a computer. But Internet access can serve both groups equally well, and provide people with something TV doesn’t: choice.
The access fund should be used to set up computer centres and establish Internet access in needy communities. The Internet empowers people and boosts economic activity in ways television never will.
Spend the money on extending the Internet and computing to underserviced areas. It will serve the country better.