With all-too-frequent regularity South Africa has a new Communications Minister. While the telecoms industry has little idea who Yunus Carrim is and what his qualifications are, there are at least sighs of relief that he isn’t the most recent incumbent or any of her equally controversial predecessors.
Anywhere else in the world there is a clear and distinct understanding that telecoms is a vital ingredient in any modern economy; spurring on the related services and apps built on that wonderful thing that was once so quaintly called the information superhighway.
The less we say about the previous ministers the better; except to say just about anyone coming into the position can do a better job than the red-soled reign of Dina Pule.
In his first public statements, Carrim has been quick to point out there are problems at the SABC that require fixing. It’s hard to know if he means the public broadcaster has shown signs of editorial and political independence that need to be reigned in; or that this massive organisation with more reporters than any other news outlet is tragically financially broken, and has become more of a “his master’s voice” than public broadcaster.
What Carrim should be focussing on is the equally parlous state of telecoms in the country, the tragic lack of affordable broadband, the incompetence of the department he has just inherited; and how these have all conspired to make South Africa’s internet access one of the most derided on the continent.
In the same week Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced a reshuffle of his own, to make the world’s largest maker of software more relevant, President Jacob Zuma has fired and hired a few key executives. Microsoft is in danger of being eclipsed by rivals like Google and Apple, who are aware of how the internet has shifted to mobile devices; while it has been protecting its highly-profitable Windows and Office monopolies.
South Africa’s status as the economic gateway to Africa is equally under threat, and the sorry state of telecoms doesn’t help multinationals trying to decide whether to base themselves here or in Kenya (which has arguably leapfrogged us, as has Nigeria, as more attractive destinations).
Carrim enters an office soiled by so many scandals the industry could be forgiven for wondering why the president hates his slow-internet-speeded subjects so much. A MP since the dawn of democracy in 1994, Carrim has a solid-enough understanding of the nature of backroom politics, but his obvious lack of IT knowledge is a worrying factor.
In case he doesn’t know, here is the FM’s rough guide to how to fix telecoms and internet access in South Africa.
Firstly. The internet is important. Really important. It truly is the information superhighway, even if that quaint phrase seems out of fashion now.
Telkom, the state-owned monolith, appears to have signs of life; but it needs to get government off its back to deliver. Here’s hoping Carrim doesn’t repeat his predecessor’s nasty habits of interfering; and Telkom’s extensive fibre network is put to better use. And quickly.
Secondly, if he thinks the SABC is broken, he should truly worry about Sentech. The single broadcasting agency is sitting on a virtual goldmine: the crucial radio frequencies needed for the next-generation of long-term evolution (LTE) cellular networks. This spectrum is currently being used by terrestrial television broadcasts, instead of the higher priority cellular data signals. Sentech has failed to make use of them; while operators like Vodacom and MTN are being forced to refarm other frequencies, creating a poorer service across the board, because Sentech (and Telkom with an unfair competitive advantage) has squandered every opportunity.
To continue the mining analogy, that at least government understands, spectrum is like gold. It can fuel a new era of data mining, creating an internet services boom town. There is a reason this spectrum is called the digital dividend. Once freed up by a switch to digital TV broadcasts, they can be used, much more efficiently, for wireless broadband.
Thirdly, what the country needs is action. Enough with the “consultation.” Mr Carrim, please make those hard decisions about the future. Do you want to be remembered as the John Wayne who rode into a wayward digital town to save us from the broadband bandits? Or as another false dawn in a years-long saga of broken promises, broken broadband dreams and unfilled hope?
This column first appeared on Financial Mail.