By Bekezela Phakathi

The Department of Communications has placed broadband penetration as its top strategic priority for the next five years in a bid to achieve 100% broadband access and population coverage by the year 2020 as detailed by the National Development Plan (NDP)‚ Parliament heard on Tuesday.

Presenting its strategic plan to members of Parliament’s communications portfolio committee‚ the department said the top five strategic priorities which were identified after “extensive engagement and to ensure strategic alignment”‚ were broadband‚ broadcasting digital migration‚ e-skills‚ the successful launch of Postbank‚ and an information and communications technology (ICT) policy review.

However MPs cautioned that the department needed to start dealing with the level of “competency” of its staff if it was to successfully implement its strategic plan.

The South African government has been struggling to meet some of its deadlines regarding broadband rollout and National Treasury in its medium-term budget policy statement last year said that the performance of the department of communications had not been up to scratch‚ largely due to delays in finalising the national broadband strategy. The department only met 0.9% of its annual ICT jobs targets and none of its broadband penetration targets in the first six months of the 2012-13 financial year (April to September). The broadband penetration target for the year was 7%. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said in his budget speech earlier this year said that while the national broadband policy was under revision‚ additional funding for enhanced broadband connectivity would only be allocated once a policy framework was agreed.

The department told MPs on Tuesday that the 7% target had been achieved to date. Democratic Alliance MP and communications spokeswoman Marian Shinn had questioned how the department had jumped from 0% to 7% in a matter of months without any visible interventions being made. “How can we trust these figures?” asked Shinn.

Themba Phiri‚ deputy director-general of ICT policy development at the Department of Communications responded by saying that the actual starting point was not zero and cited the “complexities of measuring broadband penetration”.

“You have fixed line‚ wireless and mobile. The starting point is not a zero sum‚” said Phiri. “To date the report states that we sitting at 7% (broadband penetration) ... SA broadband penetration is having a positive effect on subscriber growth year on year”.

The department told MPs that based on the 2012 broadband study it commissioned‚ there was “clearly” a lack of adequate broadband infrastructure‚ low broadband penetration per user‚ high cost of broadband access and limited competition. It said the existing broadband backbone and infrastructure focused on the metropolitan areas and the cost was unaffordable for the vast majority of people.

“In order to address market failures and the current status of broadband in SA‚ the (department) will focus on finalising the broadband policy and strategy to facilitate the deployment of broadband backbone and access infrastructure especially in rural and underserved areas‚ with specific focus on public facilities‚” the department said.