In Notice 1293 published in Government Gazette No. 41261 dated 17 November 2017, the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) invited written submissions on the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill. The date for submissions was extended to 31 January 2018 as a result of Notice 1390 published in Government Gazette No. 41312 dated 8 December 2017.
This submission is premised on the practical experience of Zenzeleni Networks, which has demonstrated an alternative model to address the universal access and service gap, in rural South Africa in particular. The recommendations herein therefore articulate legislative proposals, which in the authors' views will fundamentally alter the status quo such that South Africa may make real progress towards addressing its connectivity targets.
Zenzeleni’s ecosystem promotes the concept that historically disadvantaged communities can obtain the technical and related skills, including support, to install, manage and operate their own electronic communications services and infrastructure. This innovative arrangement for communities to self-provide is globally known as a Community Network, which, according to SA Connect, South Africa’s Broadband Policy, is considered as one of the alternatives to close the digital divide. This approach was also highlighted as one of the more desirable alternatives to reduce the Cost to Communicate during Public Hearings from the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services.
According to the authors, the Bill does not address the challenges faced by Small, Medium and Micro-sized Enterprises (SMMEs) and co-operatives, especially of those that “promote the universal provision of electronic communications networks and electronic communications services and connectivity for all” by empowering “historically disadvantaged persons, including Black people”. Additional amendments are required for the Bill to “develop and promote SMMEs and cooperatives”. It is clear that the current policy regime has not been able to address the rural connectivity divide and therefore the proposed amendments will enable a radical shift in the dispensation in which SMMEs are able to use innovative, community-based, bottom-up approaches to address the rural digital divide.