South Africa: Broadband 'Should Be a Right', say city councils

Internet

City councils had a moral duty to spend money rolling out broadband networks to cover all their citizens, in the same way that they had a duty to provide water, sewerage and electricity, speakers at a technology conference said on Thursday.

The right to broadband Internet access and affordable phone calls was just as great as the right to other municipal services. Any government that did not fulfil that need was doing its citizens disservice, speakers said.

Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban municipalities are assessing projects to create digital cities by blanketing the area with a wireless network to carry voice and data traffic. That should slash the cost of communications for the councils by ending their reliance on Telkom or the cellular operators. They could also offer cheap phone calls and internet access to businesses and residents and let people access e-government services online.

The fact that only Knysna and Tshwane were already operating municipal networks showed how difficult and expensive the projects were, said Denis Smit, the MD of research house BMI-TechKnowledge, which hosted the third annual Digital Cities Forum.

There have been some disastrous projects around the world. SA should learn from those mistakes, Smit said. Most councils wanted to appoint private operators to fund and build the network, then sell the bandwidth to the council and to consumers. That was not financially viable, Smit said.

Private operators were unlikely to recoup their costs from the few services the municipalities would run over the network and the service would have to be very cheap for consumers to sign up.

The financial risk had to be carried by the cities as a public works project, Smit said.

The social benefits through economic development, job creation and attracting new business investments would see the authorities enjoy substantial returns that outweighed the cost of the network, he said.

Smit said some of the problems in SA were the length of time it took to get the necessary telecoms licences and coping with various levels of bureaucracy and competence within local authorities. SA's cities were also enormous compared to many foreign digital city initiatives and the price of bandwidth was "exorbitant" compared to other countries.

2007 Business Day