Digital is the new mining. Tech, telecoms industry hope the Cyril Spring isn’t a false dawn

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Last Wednesday night, about an hour before the midnight deadline for former president Jacob Zuma to resign or face impeachment, his resignation flung our country back into wild celebration and hopefully back towards economic viability.

Two days later, after an imperious new President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his maiden state of the nation, looking and behaving in a statesman-like manner we have truly missed from the man we call president of South Africa.

And in the midst of a stirring speech – that was big on new possibilities and a restoration of our dignity but arguably short on actual detail – he pointed out the importance the technology and digital industries.

Ramaphosa said government “will soon establish a digital industrial revolution commission… to ensure that our country is in a position to seize the opportunities and manage the challenges of rapid advances in information and communication technology” (ICT).

As he pointed out, “our prosperity as a nation depends on our ability to take full advantage of rapid technological change. This means that we urgently need to develop our capabilities in the areas of science, technology and innovation”.

Indeed it does. There has been a desperate need for the South African government to discover what the rest of us have known for decades: digital is the new mining.

Forget seeing mining as a “sunrise industry” government needs to see digital for all the glorious potential it represents.

Silicon Valley might have lost its shine in the last year but there is no denying how profound and formative its impact can be on an economy. Look at how Kenya’s economy has been boosted by its innovative spirit and competitive mobile industry, dubbed Silicon Savannah and producing companies and products like M-Pesa, Ushahidi, M-Kopa and BRCK.

Part of Kenya’s success has been affordable and abundant broadband, something that the east African country prioritised and delivered by pushing ahead with its own undersea cables, then providing an enabling environment by using fibre and mobile data to deliver that internet access to its citizens.

Compare that to South Africa, which is still years behind schedule to switch over to digital terrestrial television to free up that spectrum previously used for TV broadcasts which will significantly boost wireless signals. There’s a good reason this chunk of bandwidth, in the 700Mhz and 800Mhz range, is called the “digital dividend”. Because of it low frequency, its signal travels further and is better at penetrating walls. Cellular operators will be able to build few base stations yet provide a better network.

The four carriers in South Africa have been begging for access to this, and other spectrum, so that they can build their businesses and supply better broadband.

Perhaps that’s what Ramaphosa means when he said: “The drive towards the digital industrial revolution will be underpinned by the availability of efficient networks. We will finalise our engagements with the telecommunications industry and other stakeholders to ensure that the allocation of spectrum reduces barriers to entry, promotes competition and reduces the cost to consumers.”

With new, invigorated and honourable leadership in government – which understands the importance of digital and telecoms (and the need to lower data costs) – the tech and telecoms industries are sure to enthusiastically respond to a genuinely enabling environment.

Like me, as Ramaphosa said, quoting the inimitable Bra Hugh Masekela, they are sure to agree: “I wanna lend a hand. Send me.”

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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