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Now employing: signpost for 2010

Two ads in the employment section of the latest Sunday Times offer two related signposts for the development of technology infrastructure in South Africa during 2010, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

Two ads in the latest Sunday Times were seemingly innocuous: six posts advertised for Broadband Infraco, and 13 for the Department of Home Affairs. But between the lines, they said so much.

To start with, the Home Affairs ad was headlined “Building the New Home Affairs”. That ’s a positive sign to start with; an acknowledgement that Home Affairs as it had been structured and the way it had been operating simply wasn’t good enough.

The ad went on to list 13 positions, including nine for regional IT support officers, and one for a “Director: Networks (Technical)”. The job description for the regional support officers included one fascinating line: “Identifying suitable workarounds that provide staff with service improvement while a more permanent solution is sought”.

This suggests that the current staffing infrastructure is intended to represent a transition, and that a better Home Affairs is indeed the ultimate quest. The main danger, of course, is that the Department may remain in a permanent state of transition, in which case a better Home Affairs will remain an unattainable myth.

The second ad explains that “Broadband Infraco is a State-led intervention to rapidly normalise telecoms market market efficiency by commoditising only those parts of infrastructure that impede private sector development and innovation in telecoms services and content offerings.”

No, it is not an initiative to further liberalise the market (please forgive the split infinitive, but they started), which would have just that effect. Rather, it is intended to bring broadband access to companies and service providers at rates dramatically below prevailing costs.

Broadband Infraco is the lead player in the development of the West Africa Cable System, due to come on stream by the end of 2011, and providing the west coast of Africa with the highest capacity undersea cable that the continent has ever seen.

What makes the advertisement a significant signpost is what it reveals about terrestrial infrastructure and where most emphasis is going to lie in that infrastructure. The ad calls for suitably qualified people in facilities maintenance, fibre optic cable maintenance, and fibre optic terminal maintenance in six centres: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Durban and Polokwane.

The focus on these six centres is all the more significant in that the emphasis of national broadband backbones until now has been on the traditional three major centres, i.e. Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. While Broadband Infraco has always been known to be home to a national network, it has not been obvious that it has hubs in all major centres. The ad brings this point neatly home.

Johannesburg will clearly be the nerve centre of the operation, with Maintenance Manager, Network Operations Systems Engineer and Network Operators all to be based in the city.

The ad also highlights the demand for a new generation of technicians in a fibre-optic era. Electrical engineers (both diplomaed and degreed) with experience in telecommunications will find themselves in demand. But it is the requirement of the Network Operations Systems Engineer that highlights the multidisciplinary requirements of these technicians: the successful applicant must be “proficient in the different technologies used in fixed and mobile telecommunications networks”.

With luck, that should mean an organisation that is not obsessed with a single connectivity technology, as Telkom has tended to be over time (first ISDN, then ADSL), but will embrace a task-oriented approach to its technology decisions.

If both Broadband Infraco and the Department of Home Affairs can achieve their technology goals in 2010, they will also help kick-start long-overdue improvement in a dramatically wide range of services, from e-government and a faster passport application process to improved quality and cost of phone calls.

May these two innocuous ads be the start of greater things for South Africa.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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