Zim’s quest for knowledge-society takes off

IN August, South Africa’s government made a leap of faith by announcing an ambitious 2020 universal broadband target. Pretoria envisaged that within eight years, the country would have 100% broad penetration improving access to information within seconds.

Report by Bernard Mpofu / Mernat Mafirakurewa

For one of the most solid democracies in the region, the decision was a mere fulfillment of trying to meet a basic human right of access to information.

The R90 billion project is expected to be funded through government and the private sector. Broadband penetration in South Africa, according to official figures, currently stands at about 12% of the population and government sees the new project creating
160 000 jobs.

This means that if fully achieved, every South African would have access to broadband Internet through community infrastructure such as schools, libraries or cyber internet cafes.

The term broadband generally refers to the wide bandwidth characteristics of a transmission medium and its ability to transport multiple signals and traffic types simultaneously.

The medium can be coax, fibre optic or wireless. In contrast, baseband describes a communication system in which information is transported across a single channel.

Contrary to regional trends, sub-Saharan Africa is one of the poorest regions in the world and has the lowest access to information and communication resources.

However, the telecommunications situation in Africa has changed dramatically, with all countries having mobile networks connected to the Internet. This means that Africa has seen growth in basic telecom, but not broadband.

Closer home, the Ministry of Information Communication Technology (ICT) two years ago launched its four-year strategic plan which would transform the country into a “knowledge society”. In a way, this was ambitious given Zimbabwe’s reluctance to open up, giving its 12 million population unfettered access to information.

This, according to ICT minister Nelson Chamisa, would be done through universal access to information which entails the ability of all people to have equal opportunity and access to a service or product from which they can benefit, regardless of their location, social class, ethnicity, background or physical disabilities.
In our context this refers to the widespread availability of telecommunications and ICT services.

“This visionary Strategic Plan of the Ministry of ICT guides and consolidates the priorities to transform Zimbabwe into a knowledge society and pulls the entire nation around a single game plan for execution,” said Chamisa at the launch of the strategic plan.
The ministry of ICT strategic plan sees government stimulating economic growth through e-government, which will minimise bureaucracy, but at the same time maximising accountability.

E-government is the use of information and communication technology to provide and improve government services, transactions and interactions with citizens, businesses, and other arms of government.
The blueprint expects the country’s teledensity, which stood at 89,88% last month, to reach saturation point within two years.

Judging by the cut-throat competition in the telecommunications sector, particularly mobile phone companies, this would appear achievable.

The price of subscriber identity module (SIM) cards that, during the Zimbabwe dollar era, cost up to $100 on the parallel market, was slashed to $20 when the new currency regime was introduced.

And now, SIM cards have been slashed to an all-time low of $1 for two lines.

With such an affordable price, owning a cellphone is no longer a status symbol. Experts say with tremendous opportunities in the ICT sector, economic growth could be underpinned by breakneck speed of development.

Notwithstanding the post dollarisation growth of the telecoms sector since the introduction of multiple currencies in 2009, Zimbabwe continues to have laws which inhibit access to information, something which could turn Chamisa’s dream of creating a knowledge society into a nightmare.

Despite a commitment by the inclusive government to liberalise the media, the broadcasting sector, particularly television, remains a no go area for private players.

Moreso, with data services fast-becoming a major source of revenue for telecoms countries in a country where the majority lives on less than $2 per day, having the luxury to access information through broadband Internet could be just a pipedream.

Internet use largely remains a preserve of urbanites, leaving the bulk of Zimbabweans residing in rural areas to rely on broadcast media.

‘We are on course’

INFORMATION Communication Technology Minister Nelson Chamisa says the country has put in place a robust broadband strategy that seeks to ensure 100% data connectivity by 2015.

In a wide-ranging interview, Chamisa said the country, recovering from a difficult economic and political period, had done well to catch up.

He said the country was following in the footsteps of Finland in its desire to make access to broadband a legal right.

In 2009 Finland passed a law making access to broadband a legal right for its citizens.

“We do have a detailed strategy guiding the country up to 2015. In our endevour in this regard we are connected to the rest of the world through optic fibre link via Mozambique, South Africa and Botswana,” said Chamisa.

“We are at the heart of Sadc and the heart has to pump and we need to be connected.”

Chamisa said the country was still in the first phase of development, largely focusing on infrastructural development across the country.

“Seek ye first the connectivity and speed and everything else will follow. What we now need to do is to develop last mile connection so that every village, township, city and town is connected,” he said.

As recognition of his ministry’s efforts to ensure connectivity, Chamisa said the country was rated as the second fasted developing country in terms of ICT after Ghana by International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

“We have managed to catch up, now we need to overtake. The mobile penetration rate has leapt from 13% in 2009 to 79,8%, while data penetration has risen from 1,3% to more than  26%. We are being very conservative with our figures given the number of people that have phones and gismos that have access to data.

“We want to have 100% data access for all by 2015”.

In order to ensure reduced tariffs and affordability, Chamisa said the ministry had successfully lobbied for the removal of duty on ICT products and this was likely to continue.

He said Finance Minister Tendai Biti understood the importance of ICTs’ contribution to the growth of the economy.

“Simcard (subscriber identity module chips) prices have gone down considerably. It’s now cheaper to get simcards than tomatoes in Kuwadzana. However, we still need the price of data to go down. We need to review the costing model to the one that gives fair value to the consumer.

“There is a need to shift the mindset by mobile operators and vendors as they are still trapped in the Zimdollar mindset. The mindset of inflating prices has to be debunked.”

On the sharing of infrastructure by service providers, Chamisa said: “Once we get to our maturity stage in terms of infrastructure development, players in the sector will then compete on services and not infrastructure development. At this stage we cannot just introduce infrastructure sharing, it should be legislated.”

Chamisa said Zimbabwe’s future economic prospects here anchored on ICT development.

“ICT is an economy within an economy. Without communication you cannot breathe, without communication you cannot educate. ICT allows leaders to lead, farmers to do farming. Everything boils down to communication.”

“ICT  reduces time, reduces geography it’s a shortcut to success and victory,” he said.

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