Dept. of Communications not performing, say MPs

….article dated 1 May 2021….

New DG promises catch up…

During a recent stormy parliamentary oversight meeting it emerged that Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) had met only 50% of its targets for the year 2020/21 year.  MPs across party lines were highly critical of the department’s failure to meet international deadlines and bring about South Africa’s participation in digital migration.

Poor performance in the critical area of digital switchover has now become a feature DCDT annual reporting, members noted.   Deputy Minister of Communications Pinky Kekana was told by MPs that the department’s failure to launch digital television in South Africa appeared to be caused by its inability to handle the tendering for the installation of set top boxes (STBs) in a coherent manner.

Ms Phumzile van Damme (DA) said there had been endless problems over three years surrounding the issue of STBs and she raised the question as to whether government had the capacity to meet the analogue switch-off date of March 31, 2022.

MPs were also highly unimpressed that South Africa had not be able join with nations that had moved from the slower analogue communications transfer of information to the more modern digital platforms incorporating higher transfer speeds and streaming methods. All of this was necessary to bring down the cost of data as government had promised it would, DCDT were told.

 All dressed up

Ms van Damme noted that it was DCDT subsidiary that had been entrusted with the task of switchover, namely the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA), but they had over 70,000 STBs still stored in warehouses and had not yet met any provincial requirements. She noted from the annual report that a start was made on installation in the Free State and she wanted to know why the Free State had been chosen to start and what progress there was.

Slow coach 

Whilst all were aware that the MTN/Vodacom court judgement on tendering rights might affect outcomes in this matter, Ms van Damme continued that the USAASA did not look as if it was in control of this process either.     Dave McKenzie (DA) complained, “Government endlessly talks about fourth industrial revolution but USAASA seemed to be asleep at the wheel in getting us there”

A number of committee members demanded that Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, attend more of their meetings.    When she did attend, and that was rare occurrence,  said Mackenzie, she disappeared early in any a meeting.  Chairperson Boyce Maneli was charged by members with the task of speaking to the Minister and requesting that time had to be found in her diary to meet her responsibilities to Parliament.

New blood

In response to all the issues before DCDT, DG Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani, newly appointed but acting head of USAASA, together with Sipho Mngqibisa its executive manager with acting CFO, Frik Nieman, took MPs through the current situation at USAASA on issues raised by members as a result of the annual report presentation.  Members would recall that last year, Jordan-Dyani said, Cabinet had approved the appointment of caretakers at both USAASA and the Sate Information Technology Agency (SITA) in Bloemfontein.

The intention had been to reposition them both as DCDT worked towards finalising a completely new state digital service company, as well as the establishment of a digital development and challenge fund, which was going to replace the parent USAASA.

Fresh start

For a long time”, she said “there have been concerns at DCDT regarding the decline in performance of the state information body.  A decision was made to replace its executives and also terminate the contract of the executive caretaker. Six officials were in total suspended in relation to suspected irregularities concerning the digital migration project.” This involved irregular tender awards, she said.

A new interim board had now been appointed to take up the reconstituted USAASA, but this process had taken time to implement Ms Jordan-Dyani said.   Sentech was still the information partner of USASSA with the Post Office remaining on board as far as storage was concerned.  Coordination between Sentech, SAPO and all the entities involved in the value chain were in a poor state.

“I am pleased to say that the entire system has been revitalised and with the approval at last by Treasury for USAASA to appoint SENTECH to manage the installations, we shall be able to meet the deadline promised by President Ramaphosa for the switch to digital to be concluded in all nine provinces by March 2022.”

Parliamentary Bill

“There is a hope that the new digital development and challenge fund will be introduced to Parliament this year and have it fully operational by the next financial year”, she said.    “The fund will operate as a section 3a public entity under the Public Finance Management Act  and there will changes proposed to the Electronic Communications Act, plus the disestablishment of USAASA.”

“I know South Africa missed the International Telecommunication Union’s mid-2015 deadline to complete the full switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television and this must not happen again”, Ms Jordan-Dyani said.

Switch over

Deputy Minister Kekana added, “In the meanwhile, the March 2022 timeline for switchover has to be met and the onus is upon us to make sure this happens.  Championing this project be the new challenge fund which will also with the process assist a struggling SABC to offer multiple more channels and create revenue to address some of their problems”, she said.

On STBs, parliamentarians were told that as far as the roll-out of the STB kits, it was schools, institutions and small business would probably be the first to be laced up, with houses with street numbers being last. This meant high density areas with rows of houses with simple street numbers, such as the many in Gauteng, would probably be the last but easiest and quickest.

Ms van Damme said that she still had her doubts that all this would be possible in such a short space of time given the track record of DCDT entities.

Lack of skills hampering broadband rollout – ParlyReportSA

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