EXCLUSIVE: Tech experts quit govt broadband council

2016-01-14 12:59 - Gareth van Zyl, Fin24
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Johannesburg - At least three top independent technology experts have resigned from a national broadband council amid allegations of insufficient guidance from government.

The National Broadband Advisory Council was launched by former Communications Minister Yunus Carrim on March 4 2014, with the intention of tapping independent experts to support the department with policy implementation.

However, the council was subject to President Jacob Zuma’s decision in May 2014 to split the Department of Communications into two. This meant that the broadband council subsequently fell under the watch of Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Siyabonga Cwele.

But the chairperson of the council, CEO of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Dr Sibusiso Sibisi, as well as the deputy chairperson Professor Alison Gillwald, executive director of Research ICT Africa, handed in their resignations in December.

“It is indeed the case that Alison and I stepped down because of insufficient guidance from the minister (Cwele) and department regarding the perceived relevance of the council,” Sibisi told Fin24.

Amid these resignations, prominent local technology expert Arthur Goldstuck confirmed to Fin24 that he has also quit as a member of the council. It is unclear at this stage whether other council members will follow suit.

Council’s meetings dried up

Fin24 understands that members of the National Broadband Advisory Council were expected to meet every two months, and that a previous government gazette outlined that the council should bridge electoral cycles and administrations.

While Carrim attended the council’s first meeting with its members in 2014, Fin24 understands that Cwele did not attend any meetings of the broadband council in 2014 or 2015.

Fin24 also understands that there were no council meetings in 2015, especially after a National ICT Forum was established by Cwele in May last year.

“Under the new administration the department, now of telecommunications and post, was reluctant to engage the council and proceeded with broadband implementation without reference to it at all, and some would argue contrary to national policy,” Gillwald told Fin24.

“The minister has not been available since coming into office to meet with the council or in any other way to endorse its activities. This compounded the department’s lack of responsiveness to council requests for information, meeting coordination and records, making the work of the council untenable,” Gillwald said.

CORRECTION: Fin24 reported previously that Gillwald said that efforts to incorporate the council into the newly established National ICT Forum resulted in no feedback from the department. Gillwald has subsequently told Fin24 that they "never sought to incorporate the broadband council in to the National ICT Forum, but rather that we saw this as an opportunity to disband the Broadband Council, rather than have it limping on, without ministerial endorsement".

The National ICT Forum was established by Cwele with the intention of coordinating efforts among public and private players in the broader sector.

“With the appointment of the National ICT Forum last year by the minister of post and telecommunications, the chairperson of the broadband council, Dr Sibusiso Sibisi, and I felt that the role of the council to advise the minister of broadband developments and anticipate global and national developments at least, could be incorporated into a body that enjoyed his and his advisers' confidence and proposed that the council be formally disbanded having not met by then for nearly a year,” Gillwald told Fin24.

Council barely “got going”

Managing director of local technology research firm World Wide Worx Arthur Goldstuck told Fin24 that Carrim’s establishment of the broadband council in 2014 was one of the most “productive” moves seen in the sector for years.

But after President Jacob Zuma’s splitting of the departments in May 2014, the relevance of the council began to wane,

"It had barely got going when the departments were split. We still met a few times after that but without the new minister in attendance,” Goldstuck told Fin24.

"And in the course of 2015, the broadband council never met,” Goldstuck said.

Amid the growing lack of relevance and non-response by government, Goldstuck also quit the council.

“It was incumbent on me to resign, especially considering that I had been contemplating it. I think that the sentiment expressed by Alison (Gillwald) and Sibusiso (Sibisi) pretty much encompass the experience of most of the members of the council,” Goldstuck told Fin24.

“It really becomes an untenable position to hold,” he said.

Goldstuck further said that the council is essentially “non-existent”.

“If there's no platform for it to communicate with the minister or to the minister, then in effect it doesn't exist. It exists on paper but not in practice,” Goldstuck said.

Fin24 reached out to the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services for comment but at the time of writing had not yet received a response.

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