Should Internet connectivity be provided as a basic Municipal service?

Fibre Internet
The Executive Mayor of Tshwane, Cclr. Ramokgopa, has even suggested that internet connectivity may be considered a basic human rights issue.

Municipalities are increasingly playing a powerful role in the Internet connectivity market. Broadband is generally recognised as a strategic tool in building the information economy and society. Extensive local and international studies have shown massive benefits of investing in Broadband infrastructure. In most of these studies, Broadband has demonstrated the ability to deliver substantial economic growth, increased employment and vast societal benefits.

It is against this background that Tshwane has resolved to enter the internet connectivity space, arguing that internet should be considered a basic service. The Executive Mayor of Tshwane, Cclr. Ramokgopa, has even suggested that internet connectivity may be considered a basic human rights issue.

While Tshwane is making significant progress in the fight against the widening digital gap, detractors often come out strongly arguing against municipal involvement in the digital revolution.

“Municipalities should confine themselves to bread and butter service delivery issues”, screamed one headline. However, in the City of Tshwane, internet connectivity is considered no different from other basic services. Promoting digital inclusion is also no lip service either to the Capital City. The Capital City cannot afford to have a “pedestrian approach” when resolving the challenges faced by the masses.

The issue of internet connectivity becoming a basic Municipal service appear to confuse some people. Questions are often asked what the City means by this and how this will unfold since Municipal services are heavily legislated. Some have wondered whether the City’s investment in technologies was justified. However, the City’s view is that any service delivery strategy that does not address the digital gap in the current digital economy is doomed to fail, because internet connectivity provides access to unlimited opportunities and has unlimited potential. Tshwane Vision 2055 provides a clear rationale for the City to become involved in areas traditionally considered not core business of municipalities, if this will help accelerate service delivery.

Let me attempt to answer the question whether internet connectivity should be elevated to a basic Municipal service status.

What constitutes a basic service?

The mandate of Municipalities, as it relates to the provision of basic services, is covered extensively in the South African Constitution, although the term ‘basic services is not defined. The term is defined in other pieces of legislations such as the Municipal Systems Act of 2000 (Act No.32 of 2000). Essentially, basic services in the context of the the Act means a municipal service that is necessary to ensure an acceptable and reasonable quality of life and, if not provided, would endanger public health or safety or the environment.

Professor Dirk Brand (University of Stellembosch) wrote extensively on the same subject, conceding that the definition of basic services is an open one and does not mention any services by name, providing an opportunity to add new services to those considered essential by Municipalities themselves (such as water and electricity).

The basis of this discussion acknowledges the fact that this is an age of information revolution, a world of huge access speeds where access to information and knowledge has become more vital, in many instances even better than access to start – up capital. Internet connectivity is therefore necessary for one to live an acceptable and reasonable quality of life, if we are to accept that connectivity is a factor in education and the economy thus ultimately impacting on one social standing. There is no reason therefore that internet connectivity should not be added to the list of basic services provided by municipalities.

Why must the City of Tshwane invest in ICT when there many competing service delivery needs?

ICT has been accepted globally as an enabler of both public and private sector businesses.The South African government has long recognised the strategic role of ICT in assisting government deliver efficient and effective services to its citizens.

Events of the last two decades bear testimony to this view. The Presidential Review Commission of 1998 highlighted the need for a coherent national ICT agenda and implementation mechanism. This resulted in the formation of the State Information Technology Agency, the Government Information Technology Officers Council and the elevation of the Chief Information Officers positions in Government, through Cabinet Memorandum 38a of 2000. Various strategic positions have been adopted by Government since then, culminating in the recent Cabinet approval of the National Broadband policy, an important milestone for Government , the ICT industry and the Country as a whole.

To this end, Tshwane as a Capital City, is home to the rest of the whole world as most embassies are housed here. Furthermore, 65% of the Tshwane population is under the age of 35, which in itself is a compelling case for investing on technologies that assist young people. The City’s service delivery challenges have also increased with the recent incorporation of erstwhile Municipalities, increasing the “ruralness” , resulting in huge service delivery expectations. Faced with these and many other service delivery challenges, a mind-shift is needed to face these daunting issues head-on and cannot be business as usual for the City.

All these challenges answer the inevitable question of whether a City already over-burdened with large-scale unemployment, vast rural population and other service delivery challenges should invest on advanced technologies, such as WiFi services. The City’s view is that without conscious interventions, the majority will remain technologically marginalised and excluded from gaining access to the information society, with disastrous consequences for the City, and ultimately the Country. This situation cannot be allowed to continue unabated.

Should Municipalities play a role in in bridging the digital gap?

Municipalities around the world have adopted broadband as an enabler of their businesses. In the same token, the City of Tshwane strives to achieve what is often referred to as a “Smart City”, where city-wide networks are designed to ensure digital age appropriateness whilst stimulating socio-economic growth within a sustainable business model.

It has been observed that the majority of telecommunications providers are not adequately contributing to digital inclusion, even though they have the financial strengths and assets to make a huge impact.

Furthermore, telecommunications providers are often keen to invest in areas where profits are guaranteed to please their shareholders (nothing wrong with that). However, Government cannot therefore take a back seat when it is crystal clear that internet connectivity has a potential to positively impact the social standing of its citizens.

Local authorities cannot afford to dither on service delivery. When this happens, the likelihood of service delivery protests that compromise the Government of the day exists. Municipalities also have a huge internet connectivity requirements to provide services to ratepayers, Increase socio-economic benefits and bridge the digital divide.

It is for this reason that where there is perceived failure by private sector organisations, local authorities should not throw their hands in despair. They should be able to provide those services themselves in order to meet the local service delivery needs. Moreover, Municipal involvement in the wifi network means that local authorities can ensure that the network embodies government’s priorities.

It appears as though there are no apparent hindrances to the introduction of internet connectivity as a basic Municipal service. Cities may have to start considering how to introduce this service to their residents. Various options may be considered for this purpose. The one option is that chosen by the City of Tshwane where free wifi access is provided at no cost to residents. Another option could be to provide free internet connectivity to incentivise the payment of Municipal services. Municipalities may also consider providing internet connectivity at little cost to ensure the sustainability of the services.

By Mr. Dumisani Otumile, Group Chief Information Officer – City of Tshwane