The long awaited National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper has been released following a lengthy three year process and has already received backlash from the Democratic Alliance (DA).

According to the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) Minister, Siyabonga Cwele, the approval of the White Paper paves the way for the start of a legislative programme that will amend laws where necessary and set up the new proposed structures or institutions.

The new policy is to replace the separate White Papers on telecommunication (1996) and postal services (1998) and, according to Cwele, is intended to play a key role in facilitating how government bridges the digital divide in rolling out ICT infrastructure.

“This integrated ICT Policy outlines supply-side measures that will ensure the rollout of quality communications and broadband infrastructure to reach all areas of the country to ensure universal access and services,” said Cwele.

This includes infrastructure that will help facilitate the use of eHealth solutions to “improve access to quality healthcare for all people across the country.” The White Paper also states that “ICTs can also assist in proactive monitoring of disease incidence and allow patients to report on poor healthcare. Mobile and other communication with patients can increase health awareness among citizens and encourage adherence to health programmes.”

Meanwhile the DA has criticised the White Paper by saying that the policy will fail in “bridging the digital divide and bringing affordable, ubiquitous communications infrastructure and services to all South Africans.”

DA Member of Parliament and Telecommunications and Postal services Shadow Minister, Marian Shinn, noted that the White Paper is “monopolistic, unconstitutional in parts, entrenches ministerial intervention over critical components of the dynamic and innovative ICT sector and will give rise to crony-heavy bureaucracies.”

Shinn went on to say that the DA believes that the White Paper was issued to “simply to rush to meet the deadlines of SA Connect, whose second deadline of delivering Internet speeds of 5Mbps to 90% of the population by 2020 looms. It was supposed to reach 50% of the population this year.”

According to Cwele, the policy aspect will reduce duplications in infrastructure rollout and minimise the cost of extending the networks to reach the entire country. It also contains a new spectrum policy that facilitates spectrum sharing and equal access to the spectrum by all licensed operators, new entrants and SMMEs.

Shin believes that the most radical component of the policy is “to have a monopolistic, price-regulated wholesale mobile network consortium with exclusive access to the entire nation’s spectrum. Competition will happen only at the service level.”

The Rapid Deployment Policy contained in the White Paper will, according to Cwele, streamline permissions and access by network operators to enable faster and cheaper rollout of services.

“The pace of rolling out networks has in the past been hampered by the bureaucracy associated with getting municipal and other permissions. The Rapid Deployment Policy will resolve this dilemma,” said Cwele.

The White Paper is also intended to further address demand-side interventions to ensure the wide spread uptake and usage of ICTs. Minister Cwele said the White Paper streamlines and consolidates government structures and outlines government priorities in terms of delivering services through the modern ICTs.

However, Shin points out that the policy will “fail to bring down the cost of communication. Increasing levies – with no ceiling in sight – on licence holders to finance government funding gaps of SA Connect infrastructure rollout as well as equip marginalised communities with skills and devices to participate in the information society, will be passed on to consumers. The lack of competition in the wholesale network will inevitably lead to cost inefficiencies and service degradation.”

According to Cwele, the structures that don’t require legislation will be set up and consultations with South Africans will continue during the process to enact the necessary legislation.

Shin’s full statement about how the “retrogressive ANC ICT policy will undermine job creation” can be found here.

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