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100Mbps plan takes South Africa a step closer to universal broadband

The latest draft of the National Broadband Policy has entered the final stages of consultation, calling for 100Mbps connections for all by 2030.
Written by Adam Oxford, Contributor

The South African government wants to achieve universal broadband access at 5Mbps for all citizens by 2020, rising to 100Mbps within 10 years after that.

The targets are part of a revision to the draft National Broadband Policy which is in the final stages of public consultation and will be presented to cabinet for approval by February next year at the latest.

On Friday, communications minister Yunus Carrim told delegates at an industry workshop around the latest draft that if the document wasn't approved by the necessary authorities by early December, he would release a final draft into the public domain anyway.

Carrim, a recent appointment to the ministerial post with a background in local government, said that he had been inspired by a recent visit to Finland and Estonia where digital services and egovernment are commonplace.

"After visiting Estonia, I'm a convert," Carrim said. "I'm an ICT fundamentalist... other countries in Africa and the rest of the world are moving at lightning speed."

Carrim said that establishing universal broadband access would help South Africa achieve its economic goals, but the speed targets in the draft document might change as he didn't want to set unrealistic aspirations which would be used to attack his successors should they fail to be met. He would rather, he said, revisit the policy on an annual basis to ensure that it remains relevant.

The most ambitious short term goals involve connecting all schools and medical facilities to the broadband network by 2015. At present, only 13 percent of schools in South Africa have internet access.

According to the draft policy, internet access at all hospitals and clinics will be a prerequisite before South Africa can begin to deliver its planned National Health Insurance and universal healthcare.

In order to achieve universal access, the policy document calls for an open access National Broadband Network with a fibre backbone, as well restructuring current 4G-LTE wireless networks to a wholesale model.

Both ambitions could be problematic, however. The National Broadband Network plans advocate local loop unbundling by the incumbent, Telkom, something that the firm has already stated it will fight. Establishing a universal wholesale mobile network is unlikely to be easy either, given current disputes around off-network termination rates and the current state of spectrum licensing.

The policy document insists that this is an essential requirement to achieve the objectives of the National Development Plan, however.

"The high cost and time required to build fibre access networks demands that wireless access solutions need to be implemented in parallel with the planning and implementation of fibre access networks," the draft policy states, calling for "substantial capacity" in the 800MHz and 2600MHz spectrum to be put aside.

How to meet the deployment cost of such a network, however, isn't covered in the report and industry critics at the presentation questioned both the financial and technical feasibility of such a plan.

"The public and private sector must work together," the policy says, "in the spirit with which South Africa delivered the World Cup in 2010."

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