Business Day column: ICT policy matters because the internet will be everything

Spats about facts can be confusing. Communications Minister Siyabonga Cwele, for instance, accused me of being "wrong" about the formulation of incredibly important telecommunications policy.

Before I lose readers who think "telecoms policy" is boring, unimportant and complicated, let me explain why you should be riveted, informed and involved. It is hard to think of anything that affects your daily life more than information and communications technology (ICT). So, as they say on talk shows, don’t go away.

You will soon enjoy and be subject to "the internet of everything". More than you may realise is, directly and indirectly, ICT-dependent. Most people are radio listeners or TV viewers, use computers and phones and interact with doctors, banks, insurers, transport providers and government officials, who routinely enter and access vital information.

There are as many active cellphones as citizens, which means virtually everyone communicates or is entertained via ICT. Incomprehensible amounts of information are in everyone’s pocket, and ever more people buy goods and services via ICT.

When I had "robotic surgery", my surgeon was elsewhere — could have been in Timbuktu. When my hi-tech car broke down, the small town mechanic did not know what to do, so I found YouTube videos to guide him. Cutting-edge cars converse with drivers, monitor components, decide what needs fixing, answer almost any question and drive themselves.

The internet of everything will soon drive and fly you around, monitor your health, provide solutions to most problems, operate robots and take charge of daily chores. Your wired home will tell your car or phone that you need butter or soap when you are close to the right store. Your toothbrush app will warn you against applying too much pressure and will arrange visits to your robotic dentist.

ICT will enrich every aspect of daily life. If, that is, bad policies — which are mercifully easy to understand and influence — do not condemn you to the past.

That is why the minister’s response to me is good and bad news. The bad news includes that he misunderstood me. I said there was no proper consultation regarding the latest ICT policy, as required by the Constitution, to which he responded that there was consultation regarding implementation, which is neither the same thing nor required.

I said there was no impact assessment (as required). He said it was on their website. It was apparently placed there the day before. If I fleshed it out, I might have made a vital contribution to warding off bad policies. It is a disgraceful document obviously completed in haste. It proves the policy is not evidence-based and does not satisfy the most elementary requirements of the official guidelines.

The big bad news is that the most important aspects of ICT policy might be the brainchild of a small state capture cabal intent on subverting what is arguably the most important sector. If you allow them to get away with it, they and a few hangers-on will be obscenely enriched at your expense.

The good news is that the worst proposals can be defeated because they were obviously not properly formulated. Furthermore, Parliament, not the executive, has the final say, and politicians in all parties are increasingly aware of the flawed process and policy.

The most exciting good news is that the minister’s response includes an explicit assurance that expropriation, nationalisation and monopolisation of wireless spectrum and network infrastructure, as feared by experts, will not materialise.

• Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation

This article was first published in Business Day on 15 March 2017

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