The 21st Century thrives on information and communication technologies. Expanded voice telephony, undersea fibre optic cables, and constant worldwide Internet access has transformed society and business, allowing immediate global contact and transfer of information.
As in the wider world, these technologies have the potential to transform Southern Africa, enabling stronger Regional Integration and Economic Development. Recognising this impact in other regions and understanding the importance these technologies hold going forward, SADC aims to develop the information and communications sector within Southern Africa. To aid these intentions, SADC passed its Declaration on Information and Communication Technologies in 2001, which sets out the broad policy for the region on cultivating this increasingly important field.
The Declaration on Information and Communication Technologies
The Declaration on Information and Communication Technologies established a coherent policy on information and communication technologies for SADC’s Member States as they endeavour to bridge the digital divide between Southern Africa and the rest of the world.
Along with advocating an improved regulatory environment and encouraging community participation in development of information and communication technologies, the Declaration on Information and Communication Technologies also specifically highlights the importance of technological infrastructure in advancing the sector. As well the Declaration on Information and Communication Technologies urges Member States to give special note to rural and remote areas, underprivileged urban areas, institutions of learning, and other communities of special benefit to the region when deploying this future infrastructure.
In 2012, SADC released its Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan which sets out the region’s priorities for new infrastructure through 2027. The plan shows that, while much information and communication technology infrastructure is already in place within SADC, the infrastructure has been implemented inefficiently due to lack of development in other sectors. Where the infrastructure has been implemented effectively, the region has adopted the technology eagerly.
As present, information and communication technologies in SADC are as follows:
- Approximately 60% of the population has adopted mobile technology, with regional ranges from 20% to 100%. However, only 6% of total voice subscribers have fixed lines;
- Across the region, only 4% of SADC residents are Internet users, although usage varies widely between Member States – from 1% in the Democratic Republic of Congo to 40% in the Seychelles; Fewer than 25% of borders between neighbouring SADC Member States exchange Internet traffic, the rest exchanging outside the region; and
- Similar to the rest of the world, postal mail volumes decline at an annual rate of 5%, although parcel mail is expanding due to e-commerce. National postal services handle 96% of domestic letters and 80% of international letters, but only 28% of domestic parcels and 20% of international parcels.
In order to establish the affordable, always-on connectivity that SADC envisions for the region, the Information and Communication Technologies Sector Plan component of the Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan promotes development of four strategic pillars: infrastructure; capacity building and content; e-services and applications; and research, innovation, and industry development.
The infrastructure pillar requires the most attention at present, as solid infrastructure catalyses the other developmental pillars into productivity. SADC has identified the following actions as especially effective for information and communication technology infrastructure:
- Ensuring that broadband connections with open-access fibres exist between all SADC Member States and their major cities, along with at least one Internet exchange point in each Member State;
- Ensuring that the public has affordable, high-speed Internet access, potentially through terrestrial wireless or satellite technology in remote areas;
- Improving connections for postal services, including physical transport and financial networks;
- Ensuring that information and communication technology connections exist from SADC Member States to the rest of Africa and the world, whether through terrestrial and undersea links or satellites;
- Ensuring that landlocked Member States, small island Member States and other special cases have adequate, cost-effective access to undersea cables, with backup routes available to ensure reliability;
- Encouraging private sector participation in information and communication technology infrastructure to complement public efforts, whether through independent investment or public-private partnerships;
- Minimising capacity costs by sharing infrastructure and equipment where applicable, while maximising reliability through increased infrastructural redundancy;
- Increasing human capacity and skills to extract the maximum potential from investment in information and communication technologies; and
- Making sure Voice over IP services are universally available throughout the region.
In initiating all of these strategic measures, SADC also aims to prioritise those proposals that involve upgrading existing infrastructure with new technology rather than deploying entirely new infrastructure. This system should establish a cost-efficient information and communication technology climate that will ensure equitable access to information, supporting both social and economic growth in the SADC region.