|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 1999|
|Topic:||Visions for the next Millennium|
|Organisation:||Ministry of Post, Telecommunications and Broadcasting|
Last year in South Africa I attended a launch of a telecentre that offers telephone, fax, computer and Internet access in the remote rural village of Ga Seleka in South Africa. Thousands of people attended. There was the elderly stooped by years of serving as a source of cheap labour on the farms of conservative white farmers, or slaving in the steamy kitchens of their madams or in the deepest pits of the mining conglomerates. There were children keen to see and touch a Minister that bothered to come to their village. This was bush country-dry, dusty, and very poor. Water is scarce and so are many of the most basic services that we often take for granted.
A few days before the launch, they did a test. When the phone rang one of the women nearby took fright and wanted to run away. She had never seen a telephone, never used one and certainly never owned one. She would have had to walk 50 kilometres to use a phone in the past. She is one of the estimated four billion people in the world that don’t have access to a telephone. Less than six months from the next millennium and the advent of the digital revolution we are still debating the division between the North and the South, the rich and the poor, urban and rural, and men and women. Now is the time for action. Words are meaningless; the digital revolution will be useless to the billions of poor marginalised communities of the world if we do not take meaningful steps to ensure that the technologies of the telephone (Internet, fax, computers, etc) are accessible by the poor. We have a historic opportunity to pass a legacy to our future generations that will catapult them into the Global Information Society of the next century. Our challenge is to provide meaningful solutions. The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. Not even the fortress economies of the developed world will be able to withstand the overwhelming surge of a displaced majority of humanity. We need to forge a vision for the next millennium, to work genuinely for a partnership to deliver a better quality of life to people. In 1995 The Department of Communications in South Africa started a consultative process involving hundreds of inputs and discussions with stakeholders ranging from civil society and Non Government Organisations (NGO), to the business sector, rural organisations and womens groups. The telecommunications policy adopted by Parliament in March of 1996 laid a firm foundation for South Africas full participation in the Information economy of the 21st Century. The new policy direction and the new regulatory framework clearly repositioned telecommunications to take advantage of the exponential growth in the sector globally. Our new policy is guided by a vision of universal service. It has established a three-tier separation of power between the government dealing with policy; an independent regulator ensuring fair competition and transparent licensing regime in a market that is being progressively liberalised; and operators with the policy encouraging the entrance of many players into the various sectors of the telecommunications market. The only monopoly that applies is for our partially privatised national telecom operator (Telkom SA) on voice telephony for a period of six years (ending 2002/2003). This trade-off was necessary to ensure universal access. (Telkom SA has been restructured to prepare for competition in an increasingly globalised telecommunications sector. In line with the vision outlined for privatisation of state assets, strategic equity partners have been brought in to strengthen the companys access to management expertise, international best practice and technology.) Universal Access is the cornerstone of our policy. Studies show a direct, positive correlation between communications infrastructure and per capita growth, and the old view that communications is the consequence of development has given way to the knowledge that communications is a precondition for its success. We have laid the foundation that will prepare communities around the country to become part of the knowledge economy, and now the focus is moving to building applications that will catapult our country into the next Millennium. Over a five-year period (ending in 2002/2003), Telkom SA will have to install three million new lines. Over a million analogue lines will be digitalised. Every village, every town, every school, every clinic, every police station, every post office, every community centre and every library will have to be connected. A digital high-speed broadband fibre-optic backbone will have to be built that will be capable of carrying voice, data and video. Success in this rollout – one of the worlds fastest – has been significant. Prior to 1994, only a quarter of all homes in South Africa had telephones. Today, after more than 1,3 million new connections, 35% of all households are linked to the national telephone system. By the end of the financial year 2001/2002, 75% of all households will have access to a telephone. Last year alone, Telkom installed 386, 426 new lines, up on the 256, 459 lines installed in the 1996/1997 financial year, and significantly up on the high of about 150 000 lines installed in any one year prior to 1994. Telkom has already connected 600 schools in disadvantaged areas to the Internet, and aims to connect 2, 000 schools this year. Access to a telephone is not limited to fixed line services. South Africas cellular market could see many as 10 million new users added to the cellular network, hence the governments decision to licence a third cellular operator by the middle of this year. There has been an explosion of the cellular market since the introduction of cellular services in 1994, with two operators hooking more than 2.5 million users since then. Then if full competition in all other areas of telecommunications including value added services, paging, equipment supply, trunk calling there is full competition. The basis of our WTO offer was to phase in competition in all areas of telecom by 2002. Last year I launched the digitalisation of the first major city in South Africa. I answered the excited questions of children in a poor township school who now have access to the Internet. Thousand of our schools and clinics will be connected to the Internet allowing applications of Telemedicine and Distance Education. Technology is helping our society to catapult over stages of development. I can only say that I am pleased with the progress; the digital nervous system delivering equal services to rich and poor, urban and rural is being implemented. The benefits of the information society is driving the transformation of our society. One of the world realities is the globalisation of the world economy. As developing countries we are constrained by a lack of resources and poorly performing economies. The report of the Independent Commission for World-wide Telecommunications Development (the Maitland Commission) in 1984 identified the missing link in telecommunications development as the gap, in access to basic telephone services, between developed and developing countries. Sir Donald Maitland, the Commission Chairman, illustrated this gap with the famous quote that there were more telephones in Tokyo than in the entire African continent. That description was as true then as it is now. In the Global Information Society, there is a direct positive correlation between access to telecommunications and socio-economic development. We realise that telecommunications is no longer the consequence of development, rather it is a necessary precondition. The information society is not an impossible dream; neither is it a sophisticated nicety. It is fundamental to uplifting and improving the quality of life of all the disadvantaged people of the world, to ensure that future generations do not suffer from the same disadvantages and that the principle of equal opportunities prevails. It is incumbent upon the world telecommunications community to address the challenge of narrowing the development gap. We need to think creatively about the application of technology and how it can be used to build a truly global information infrastructure that meets the different needs of different people in different countries and regions and communities and villages of the world. The impact of the information society and the associated structuring of the information economy is central to telecommunications development. In addition, the emergence of multimedia services, the rapid development of mobile communications, the advent of intelligent networks and satellite communications contributes to a dynamic sector. Towards that end, telecommunications policy will need to address the challenge of addressing the development gap. There is increasing awareness of the close links between telecommunications and political, economic and social development. It is also a reflection of an increasingly diverse world. In an increasingly information intensive global economy, the provision of adequate communication infrastructure and services is crucial for national development and improved competitiveness. The challenge for some of us is to expand rural communications, which is often neglected because of the misplaced view that it is uneconomic. This is because conventional studies have counted only traffic from rural areas rather than traffic generated to them. Telecommunications services have also proven to be extremely valuable in improving education indicators and reducing operational costs in several developing countries. The Singaporean experience in electronic data interchange has produced tangible benefits, with excellent multiplier effects. Quality telecommunications infrastructure and services are a prerequisite for the attraction of foreign direct investment. Global competition for investment among developing countries has skyrocketed in recent years, with available capital being scarce and extremely selective. Quality telecommunication services will be key national competitive advantages by the turn of the millennium. Indeed this decade will also be remembered as the time in which cross-border traffic over the Internet first exceeded that on the telephone network – a major challenge to the network. 1998 saw the implementation of a historic agreement in telecommunications concluded at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). It also witnessed the opening up of telecommunications markets within several Member States of the European Union. The telecommunication sector is one of the major components of the worlds economy, ranking third after banking and health services. Furthermore, telecommunication networks are a major facilitator of trade in other goods and other services. For instance, the value of financial services transferred over the SWIFT international telecommunication network exceeds $US 1 trillion each day. The extensive coverage and binding nature of the WTO agreement accounts for over 90 per cent of international telecommunications traffic. These commitments by the signatories represent significant departures from conventional liberalisation programmes. Notwithstanding the different national configurations, the WTO agreement makes for a markedly revolutionary sector. The intensity of the revolution will impact upon regulatory structures and operations, existing legislation, competition policy, pricing policy, interconnection agreements, business and consumer practices. But most importantly, the signatories will need to establish the implementation mechanisms and dispute resolution mechanisms necessary for new operators and service providers to enter those segments of their telecommunication markets, which they have committed, to open. However with all perceived benefits, there are risks. These include the possibility of a decline in telecommunication revenue for particular operators, an infringement of national sovereignty and loss of control over basic telecommunication infrastructure. These are all strategic considerations. Another concern is the fear of predatory competition from powerful competitors. All of this will affect the pricing policy and the accounting rate system. Undoubtedly world telecommunications liberalisation can have an adversely distributive effect – if no concerted effort is made to prepare a careful plan and strategy. The WTO agreement also highlights the multilateral nature of telecommunications trade and represents a significant deepening of the institutional reorganisation of telecommunications governance. The international telecommunications community needs to work together to find solutions appropriate to the new telecommunications environment heralded by the WTO agreement. The world telecommunications community needs to take into account the infrastructure construction and the development of information processing industries. We need to participate collectively in the building of the information society. It is our view that the WTDC 98(99?) has a critical role to play to leapfrog the developing world into the information economy of the 21st century. This conference must be a further platform for growth and development for the wider telecommunications community. We remain poised on the threshold of a new global information society with all of the benefits that that has to offer all the people of the world. But we will never achieve the global information society unless we prepare for the global information economy. This means adopting a bold and decisive approach to the international trading patterns and investment realities. Telecommunications and information services are essential to all forms of economic activity. The WTO agreement, therefore, represents a bold step towards building the global information society. Conclusion We need to focus on the opportunities, the strengths and the positive outputs, not only on the perceived threats. Towards this end it becomes incumbent upon the ITU and the BDT in particular, to become more responsive to telecommunications in developing countries, more effective and more efficient in the effort to become more equitable in improving the access of telecommunications towards all of humanity.