The Director General of South Africa’s Department of Communications has called an international conference in Johannesburg in July to discuss a radical overhaul of the country’s telecoms legislation. According to Andile Ngcaba the meeting will allow interested parties to deliberate on the challenges presented by the convergence of technologies, discuss how to speed up the process of bridging the digital divide and give all inhabitants access to telecommunications at a fair cost. The South African government hopes the conference will allow industry players to have a significant input into a discussion document which will map the way forward.
Although South Africa’s teledensity is relatively high for Africa at over 10%, there are profound differences in the telecommunications infrastructure between rural and urban areas. It has an extensive backbone with first class communications networks in the commercial centres but this contrasts starkly with very low penetration of services in rural areas. Indeed, almost half of the country’s 4.9 million lines (September 2002) are installed in the Gauteng and the Western Cape, the country’s most economically productive provinces. The rural/urban divide is reflected in the fact that the Universal Service – the availability of a household telephony service – stands at just 9% for rural households, compared with 64% of urban households. A principal goal of the planned legislation will doubtless be to soften these inequalities by encouraging a host of new empowerment companies to run telecoms services in rural areas where Telkom SA does not have a presence.