By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day, 17 May, 2011

World Telecommunications and Information Society Day marks the anniversary of the signing of the first international telegraph convention and the creation of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 1865. The ITU’s mission is to connect the world and fulfill everyone’s fundamental right to communicate.

Every time someone makes a phone call, sends a fax or receives an e-mail, travels on a plane or a ship, listens to the radio or watches television, they benefit from the universal IT and telecommunications frameworks put in place by the ITU.

It also regulates worldwide use of the radio-frequency spectrum, ensuring all international wireless communications remain interference-free, and advises on development policies, regulatory frameworks and strategies. The theme of this year’s World Communications and Information Society Day is Better life in Rural Communities with Information and Communication technologies (ICT).

Half the world’s population resides in under-serviced rural districts and far flung communities and this translates into three billion people that are benefiting least from the use of IT and telecommunication. South Africa has a seat on the ITU Council, which allows the Department of Communications, the regulator Icasa and other government agencies to put forward a collective view of telecommunications agendas across the continent.

As a member of the council the government is playing its part in celebrating World Telecommunications and Information Society Day with the launch of several projects over the past week that are aimed at promoting connectivity in rural areas. These include the setting up of computer centres at the Maphaphoma primary school in Nongoma, KwaZulu Natal and the Mzingwezwi High school in Ndwedwe, KwaZulu Natal.

The centres are equipped with 20 computers that have multimedia screens and a network server that are connected to the internet. Communications Minister Roy Padayachie says these projects are a joint effort between government agencies, and the private sector companies that are providing the funding.

In addition, the Department of Communications is funding a multimedia communications centre at Impendle near Pietermaritzburg, which is equipped with about 20 PCs and internet connectivity and will serve as an ICT training centre for the community. It is also launching a project in Msinga in Northern KwaZulu Natal in conjunction with the SABC to provide television broadcast to the community for the first time, says Padayachie.

“The community has never had television services before,” he says. A pilot project is also on the go to install a cellular network in Msinga and surrounding areas to provide internet connectivity to 137 schools, a clinic, a hospital, and the local magistrate’s court.

“If it is successful this will provide a model that can be used as a basis for rolling out similar services in other rural communities,” says Padayachie. The Msinga project is a joint effort between the Department of Communications, Icasa, Sentech, the Universal Service Agency (USAASA) and a local telecommunications service provider.

Rolling out connectivity services in rural areas is a huge job that needs to involve both the public and private sector. “We are currently defining what role the public sector should be playing in this regard.”

He says times are changing and cellular operators and other telecommunications sector players are seriously eying connectivity opportunities in rural areas. “They are asking for more spectrum to do this, but they need to meet the regulator’s requirements first.”

The Department of Communications recently attended a summit meeting with top ICT companies and established a committee to address broadband communication issues and opportunities and the outcome was very positive, says Padayachie. He says he is aware that South Africa is slipping behind other African countries with broadband communication and that this needs to be addressed.

Obed Bapela, Deputy Minister of Communications says the Department of Communications is planning to take a more integrated approach to assisting with the development of broadband infrastructure in rural communities. In the past, different departments have approached this in their own way, resulting in isolated projects.

For example, some municipalities have been setting up networks to service their own communities. Bapela says there is a need to orchestrate all the initiatives that are being undertaken.

The department is also looking at ways to encourage people living in rural communities to develop an interest in computer literacy so they can use devices like smartphones to communicate and access the internet. “Smartphones are the ideal device for the majority of South Africans to access the internet.”

He says once people learn the basics they will want to explore further, as happened when people first started using ATMs to draw money. An organisation called Village Telco, in which the Shuttleworth Foundation has a 30% stake is running pilot projects for rolling out Wi-Fi networks in rural areas to provide low cost telephone services to under-serviced communities.

“Wireless access points are installed in each household and residents can plug in a conventional telephone and communicate with each other at no cost,” says founder Steve Song. He says a network of these Mesh Potato access points these can be connected to any other network.

This means the community where the Mesh Potato network is installed can also have access to low cost internet and long distance Voice over IP (VoIP) calls. “Only one access point needs to be connected to the nearest point of presence (PoP) to provide internet access,” says Song.

This PoP could be a commercial service provider or even a local farm that has an ADSL connection.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist and she writes regularly for Business Day. She also runs media training and writing skills workshops, and is the author of A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing and distributing effective press releases, an electronic version of which can be downloaded free from her website: www.jennigay.co.za.

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