Chairperson, hon Cabinet colleagues, hon members, captains of industry, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, in acknowledgement of Youth Month I wish to salute our youth and recognise the sterling role they played in our past. I deliver this Budget Vote against the background of the challenges put forward by the President of our country in his state of the nation address. With the adoption of the Medium-Term Strategic Framework, which is based on the electoral mandate, the path that government must travel is spelt out clearly. In the state of the nation address the President made it clear that the fight against poverty remains a cornerstone of government policy. The question that we have to answer is: How do Information and Communications Technologies, ICTs, assist as a tool to support national imperatives as outlined by the President?
The policy choice we made as a country with regard to broadcasting digital migration will ensure that the process is not only about modernising technology, but that it also addresses key socioeconomic, developmental and infrastructure challenges that face us. Despite the complexity of the digital migration process, significant progress has been made to meet the analogue switch-off date of 1 November 2011.
I am happy to inform the Committee that on 30 October 2008 the digital signal was switched on. This milestone marks the commencement of the dual illumination period for South Africa. During this period, both the analogue and digital signals will broadcast simultaneously. I have been informed that the pilot which is currently running is progressing well. In line with government's decision to support poor TV-owning households, we are finalising the details regarding the implementation of the scheme for ownership support for set-top boxes for submission to the Cabinet shortly. As part of building excellence in the electronic industry, we are at an advanced stage to finalise the Set-Top Box Manufacturing Sector Development Strategy. This strategy will promote collaboration between government and the industry and, among others, the various industry players in the manufacturing of the set-top boxes. It is envisaged that the migration programme will assist in reskilling, job creation and the transformation of the sector.
However, much still needs to be done to ensure that the broader South African public understands this process, how it will impact on them, and what they will have to do. During this year, the implementation of the public awareness campaign, though underfunded, will be intensified. I am aware of the challenges of meeting some of the targets, due in part to the funding constraints and the economic downturn. I will, however, appeal to all role-players to continue to work together through the Digital Dzonga to realise the goal of this critical programme.
Although this Budget Vote is delivered against the backdrop of the economic challenges facing the world, one of government's priorities is to ensure a massive programme to build economic and social infrastructure. We need to respond to this reality cognisant of our people's expectations of a better life. We dare not fail them. Like other sectors of the economy, the ICT sector has to respond appropriately to ensure that we continue delivering better services to all. During the past 15 years, the ICT sector contributed close to 7% to the gross domestic product of the country, which is a significant contribution, given its size. The policy choices we made as a country enabled the development of a robust, vibrant and competitive ICT sector that has seen the emergence of strong mobile technology companies, the roll out of wireless broadband service offerings and an increased diversity in ownership. To consolidate these gains, the country needs to constantly review its policy and regulatory environment to assess whether it appropriately supports the future growth of the sector.
I believe that the time has come to outline the country's long-term vision for the sector to direct future interventions by all spheres of government and relevant role-players, and to provide policy certainty for the industry and investors. We will therefore develop an integrated national ICT policy framework, which will be ready by the end of the financial year. This policy framework will seek to promote the convergence of technologies and to stimulate the growth of the economy, in line with the objectives of the National Industrial Policy. It will furthermore encourage e-commerce activities and expand ICT infrastructure, linking rural and urban communities, as well as uplifting the poor.
The Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa, Usaasa, is currently concluding a 10-month consultative process, in terms of its mandate, on the definitions of universal service and universal access, together with suggested targets for the achievement of these goals. The process that Usaasa has undertaken also includes definitions of underserviced areas and needy persons, which will serve as recommendations to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, Icasa, and the Ministry. The outcomes of the definitions process will lay a firm policy foundation in addressing the challenges of the digital divide.
This will also enable a review of the Universal Service Obligations as imposed by Icasa on communications licence holders to be more cognisant of national priorities, achievements of the Millennium Development Goals and targets of the World Summit on the Information Society, which seeks to have community ICT access and content development. It is anticipated that the recommendations will be tabled with the Minister in July 2009.
The policy framework will also assist in the full utilisation of the Universal Service and Access Fund in support of the deployment of ICT infrastructure and connectivity to needy people in underserviced areas. To date, access to electronic communication and network services, especially broadband and the internet, remain unaffordable and thus beyond the reach of large sectors of our people.
Much work has been done to implement the key objectives of the ICT policy as enshrined in the White Paper on Telecommunications Policy. Among the policy objectives has been the need to create and increase the equity ownership of the telecoms market share by the previously disadvantaged groups. In this regard, the Underserviced Area Licensees, Usals, were awarded licenses to provide telecommunications services within designated districts. To date, however, none of these operators are providing these services fully, due to various challenges. This despite the subsidies received.
The Usals programme and business model will therefore be reviewed in line with the current realities of the ICT industry and the developments taking place in a converged environment. A policy directive will be issued from the office of the Minister in due course to provide direction on the Underserviced Area Licensees.
Most of us did not foresee the profound impact that the roll-out of electricity would have on our lives. Digital technologies, too, will have a major influence on our lives and on generations for many years to come. The availability of and access to broadband services can be of great value to the developmental programmes of many countries.
The availability of universal and affordable broadband brings with it a number of benefits. It improves the delivery of public services through the transformation of the public sector by increasing access for citizens to online information, and services in areas such as e-health, e-education and e-government. It enables and drives the development of entirely new technologies and content, thus providing opportunities for job creation such as website design and new content development. It revolutionises the delivery of multimedia services to households, for instance: new telephony, entertainment, internet and education. In essence, broadband acts as a catalyst to a more robust economy, thus contributing towards increasing the gross domestic product.
While the number of new broadband subscribers continues to grow, the rate of broadband deployment in urban and high-income areas outpaces deployment in rural and low-income areas. Markets are not likely to deliver to the majority of the population in the near future without some form of government intervention. Government will, therefore, be required to ensure coverage, particularly in rural areas.
Many broadband initiatives exist on national, provincial and local spheres. To ensure co-ordination of these initiatives we have commenced consultation with provinces and municipalities regarding the roll-out of broadband infrastructure in those areas. In this regard, a national broadband policy will be finalised by March 2010.
The policy will provide a holistic, co-ordinated national approach to the provision of affordable, realistic and secure broadband infrastructure and services. It will also outline targeted interventions to encourage the uptake and usage of broadband services across the country, particularly in remote, rural and underserviced areas. I believe this is in line with our President's call to contribute, more than ever before, to the development of rural areas in our country. To this end, we also have to ensure that, as the country moves to the information society and knowledge economy driven by modern technologies, the poor are not left behind. In particular, we must ensure that remote rural communities and underserviced areas are an integral part of the planning from the start and not as an afterthought. People need access to information and services, irrespective of their social and economic status, without them having to travel long distances to access this. We will work together with other government departments and spheres of government to achieve this goal.
For the sake of brevity, I just want to add that government supports both the New Partnership for Africa's Development, Nepad, broadband, as well as the Infraco initiatives.
We cannot speak about access to information and services by all the people of our country without addressing the issue of the costs thereof. South Africa's high telephonic cost has been a subject raised consistently in the recent past. In 2008, the department commissioned an independent benchmark study to look at cost, access and usage with comparative countries, namely Malaysia, India, Chile, Brazil and South Korea. The study confirmed that our telecommunication prices are still too high compared to those countries.
The department will be developing a programme of action aimed at improving in cost, quality, availability and usage of ICTs. In addition, I will be appointing an independent panel of experts whose recommendations will assist me in designing appropriate interventions to address the cost to communicate effectively. We will also continue to develop policies which will contribute to, among other things, reducing the cost to communicate.
One of the ten priorities that inform the basis of the Medium-Term Strategic Framework is sustainable resource management and use. In this regard, I wish to inform the House that, within the ICT sector, we deal with the radio frequency spectrum, which is a natural and finite resource just like land and water. It is, therefore, important that this resource is managed efficiently for the development of the country. The department will finalise the radio frequency spectrum usage policy by March 2010. This policy will provide guidance on the allocation of frequencies to the different radio communication services in the country. The allocation will prioritise issues of national interest, security, and spectrum for public use. As part of this process an audit on the spectrum occupancy and usage will also be conducted.
As we embrace a plethora of new technologies, which by their very nature and design are globally interconnected and interdependent, we must remain vigilant with regard to the inherent risks associated with the usage thereof. The enhancement of cyber security and the protection of critical information infrastructure is essential to our country's economic and social wellbeing and the maintenance of national security. A national cyber security policy will be finalised before the end of the year. This initiative is our contribution towards combating crime in our country - another government priority.
The department is committed to improved service delivery. The state-owned enterprises in this portfolio will remain important delivery arms for the department. It is, therefore, critical that there is alignment between their programmes and the activities of government and its programme of action. Where disjuncture exists, measures will be put in place to ensure policy coherence and programme alignment. Sentech remains a national strategic asset. I congratulate them on their achievements in signal distribution and the excellent work done with regard to the ICT guarantees for the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Sentech was able to deliver timeously to the Local Organising Committee, despite very trying circumstances.
I will accelerate the corporatisation of Postbank to provide a wider range of affordable financial services for the unbanked, particularly the marginalised and the poor. In this regard, the Postbank Bill will be tabled in this House before the end of this year. The Bill aims to provide for the establishment of a stand-alone public company to be known as the South African Postbank.
I want to use this opportunity to commend the South African Post Office Board and Management, who, under difficult trading conditions, have managed to produce positive financial results. I also wish to congratulate the South African Post Office, Sapo, on winning the Centre for Public Service Innovation Award, for their innovative deployment of systems in government. [Applause.]
I have looked at the challenges facing the Public Broadcaster, which include governance, management capacities and financial management challenges. A new vision and mandate for public broadcasting services in line with South Africa's developmental agenda is required and the governance of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, SABC, needs to be strengthened. The department will therefore amend the Broadcasting Act, in consultation with all relevant stakeholders, and rename it the Public Services Broadcasting Act. The amendment will bring the charter in line with international best practice, and ensure that the public broadcaster is best suited to our young democracy. The amendment will also introduce an appropriate funding model to ensure that the public broadcaster is not left to the vagaries of the markets.
At this point, I would like pay tribute to my predecessor, the late Dr Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri. Dr Matsepe-Casaburri served in this portfolio for close to ten years, with true dedication and commitment. This House would be faulting history if it failed to recognise formally the foundation established by the late Dr Matsepe-Casaburri.
In conclusion, let me remind everyone in this House today that the world is moving on and the nature of ICT production is changing. Increasingly, ICTs are being imbedded in many products and services and we must ensure that South Africa gets a share of this market. I would, therefore, like to invite all stakeholders to work together in making ICTs relevant to our people. I wish to express my appreciation to my Deputy Minister, as well as the acting director-general and the top and senior management, as well as the staff. I request this House to adopt this Budget. "Ngiyabonga." [Thank you.] [Applause.]