Government planned to use its state-owned enterprise in the telecommunications sector to drive fundamental infrastructural investments in the industry, Department of Communications Director-General Lyndall Shope-Mafole said on Friday.

Just as Eskom and Transnet are together investing more than R120bn over the next five years in infrastructure, so Sentech, as a state-owned telecommunications company, will be used to develop the necessary infrastructure.

Shope-Mafole's statements to Parliament's communications portfolio committee during a briefing on the department's 2006-09 strategic plan marked a conceptual shift in the understanding of the role of the department. It will not only be a policy-making institution but one proactively involved in development to promote higher levels of investment in the economy. Shope-Mafole said history had shown that where communications were reliable and affordable, this was because they had been developed by the state.

"This is the approach that is increasingly being taken by developing countries. The country cannot be held to ransom while waiting for the private sector to do this thing. Once we create the infrastructure, we will create a market, and this will encourage the private sector to get involved," she said.

Shope-Mafole said investment in wireless broadband systems would be prioritised to ensure broad and affordable access to communication services. Sentech, which has complained that it has not been allocated sufficient money by the state for the migration from analogue to digital broadcasting, would get the funding it required, she said.

Sentech has warned that unless it receives state-funding for the migration soon, SA will not have the necessary systems for televising the 2010 Soccer World Cup throughout the world. But Shope-Mafole insisted: "We are going to be 2010-ready, we are going to be digital-ready. In fact SA will be one of the first in the world to migrate to digital in broadcasting."

Another example of government getting stuck into infrastructure roll out, she said, was the state's participation in the $250m, 22-country east African submarine cable project due to become operational in the first quarter of 2008.

Business Day