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Douglas Cohen (South Africa) - Connecting Rural Areas (Part 2)

In part one of this blog post (here) I discussed the technological and socio-economic challenges in rural areas across South Africa. In part two I will explore wawys to overcome these challenges.

To make an impact in connecting a rural under-serviced area I would propose that a wider definition or understanding is applied, rather that targeting just an electronic communication / broadcasting intervention in the narrowest sense.  But how does this leave us with a way forward or anything positive for those unconnected rural places to be slightly optimistic about? Maybe there is a solution somewhere between the following three “programmes”. As always the impact will be in the implementation (not always our strong-point as a country).

i.    If the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA)  could get agreement and finalise the list of under-serviced areas it presents a real opportunity for all spheres of government, the private sector and civial socity to act in unison to achieve bridging the digital divide.  The list of under-serviced areas will then be eligible for payments from the Universal Service and Access Fund (USAF).     The USAF has as much R1bn in its coffers — and possible even more. The money is meant to be used to facilitate the roll-out of telecommunications infrastructure in under-serviced and rural parts of SA, but has remained largely untapped for years.

ii.    The South African government recently annouced  17 newly selected infrastructure strategic integrated projects, or Sips, with leaders and officials across all three spheres of government . For example there are three ‘spatial’ Sips (including the integrated municipal infrastructure project, the integrated urban space and public transport programme and an agri- logistics and rural infrastructure Sip). Of interest falls within one of the two ‘knowledge’ Sips – the first being the Square Kilometre Array and Meerkat projects and second involves expanding access to telecommunications countrywide. The aim here is to “Provide for 100% broadband coverage to all households by 2020 by establishing core Points of Presence (POP’s) in all district municipalies…. And further penetrate the network into deep rural areas”. Here the government has promised to co-invest in the infrastructure especially for rural access.

iii.    The most promosing option, I believe, is when South Africa moves from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT) broadcasting. There are multiple potential benefits. Two of note include the digital dividend, which refers to the spectrum which will be released in the process of digital television transition. Part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has been used for broadcasting will be freed up because digital television needs less spectrum than analog television. There are a number of players interested in obtaining a slice of the digital dividend, including terrestrial broadcasters and mobile network operators who could use to roll out services. A second key potential benefit is that with the roll-out of new set-top boxes the digital broadcasting can be integrated into Internet Protocol (IP) based networks. This implies that IP based telecommunications networks can facilitate access to TV broadcasting and other IP based services.

So we will just have to wait and see but I fear that finding that well connected rural place is still a long-way off. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing, if you see the wisdom in this quote from Bill Vaughan:

“My father asserted that there was no better place to bring up a family than in a rural environment.... There's something about getting up at 5 a.m., feeding the stock and chickens, and milking a couple of cows before breakfast that gives you a lifelong respect for the price of butter and eggs."

By Douglas Cohen, South African Local Government Association (SALGA)

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