The gazetting of the long-overdue draft policy on rapid deployment of electronic communications networks and facilities is good news for a South African economy that shrank 51% in the second quarter of 2020.
That’s according to the Internet Service Providers’ Association of SA (ISPA) which says the boost to gross domestic product (GDP) delivered by facilitating investment in telecommunications infrastructure is essential to the local economy returning to pre-Coronavirus levels.
“The recent pandemic perfectly illustrated South Africa’s digital divide. Those with affordable, high-speed Internet access transitioned to Zoom and passed lockdown with relatively little disruption, while most households struggled to work or study effectively online,” says Dominic Cull, regulatory advisor to ISPA.
Government has recognised the need to transition to a digital economy: this can only exist on the back of robust telecommunications networks that offer opportunities to all South Africans.
The rapid deployment policy addresses the need to build telecoms infrastructure like fibre links and cellular base stations much faster and in many more areas that either remain underserviced or which will soon require a densification of telecommunications infrastructure.
“The current policy is about addressing the digital divide and, ultimately, reducing the cost to communicate. It is not about putting a base station in your garden,” says Cull.
“It is also about meeting the incredible year-on-year increases in demand for data and reliable connectivity from South African businesses and consumers.”
The policy does indeed provide for mobile networks entering and using private and public land to install their infrastructure, although the networks will be required to negotiate with and compensate landowners. This is already the procedure followed.
“Private landowners have expressed concerns relating to health issues and property values and are concerned that the policy will involve expropriation without compensation” notes Cull. “ISPA does not wish to express a view on 5G and health but notes that all radio equipment used in South Africa is certified to be compliant with international safety standards.”
“Further the policy is aligned with a Constitutional Court judgement on the balance to be drawn between landowner rights and those of telecommunications companies rolling out infrastructure. The policy provides specifically for compensation for any infrastructure which impacts on the use of the land and that a licensee cannot proceed until a dispute raised by a landowner is resolved.”
The reality is that negotiations to intensify South Africa’s deployment of state-of-the-art mobile technology will mostly concern owners and custodians of public land such as municipalities and state-owned companies.
“What the policy really needs to address is government red tape and for the various requirements for permissions to be streamlined and centralised. Delays in obtaining these permissions and financial demands from state entities are the biggest barriers to rapid deployment,” Cull concludes.