The idea of a fully 'connected' and integrated digital city, with a plethora of online services for its citizens, sounds ultra-futuristic and like a pipe dream. The local telecoms and IT industry has its own views.
The notion of a digital city, where all citizens have access to public services through broadband Internet connections, has long since been in the minds of government and the private sector. The reality is that it is only now that developments in this space are coming to the fore. "The move is about government transforming and all about e-government bringing public services to citizens, but the uptake is slow," says Ashley de Klerk, public sector director at Microsoft SA.
Like many others, Zolisa Masiza, councillor at Icasa, asks how the implementation of digital cities can be justified if government has not yet sorted out basic services, such as sanitation, running water and housing, for all citizens of the country.
Linked with this are the questions: Who will really benefit from this? Will it be possible to implement this dream if the most basic needs of citizens have not been met? And who will be responsible for making it happen? - thus making the debate a difficult one. Says country manager at 3Com
Johnathene Beyers-Clements: "The answer lies in public private partnerships (PPP) and a parallel strategy, whereby both government and the private sector look at resolving the issues of basic services simultaneously with establishing digital cities." She believes that public domain interest groups must lobby for the proliferation of community services, and notes that the private sector must drive this.
Beyers-Clements also adds that it would be a 'faux pas' if we do not exploit the idea of digital cities now, and says that, if attention is not given to this issue, it will again put SA far behind the rest of the world. "Following a linear approach would be a huge mistake. Digital cities would be an important catalyst to a total solution," she says.
Referring to President Thabo Mbeki's state of the nation address, where he said that national government will look to local authorities to deliver national services to citizens, De Klerk says: "National government must take the leading role, but cities' major role is making it work." He adds that this is happening, and cites the cities of Cape Town, Tshwane and Johannesburg, where current digital city pilot projects are successfully running.
He believes that local authorities are taking charge because they are very competitive, and want to build revenue by using infrastructure to create sustainable economies.
Alan Bacher, product manager at Internet Solutions' access division, says government first needs to put together a proper broadband policy and a national strategy. He notes that the US government is currently experiencing problems with broadband access because it did not do this, and says that SA must avoid this at all costs.
Dr. Andrew Hutchison, business manager: telecommunication services at T-Systems SA, says: "The driver for cities is the high cost of telecoms infrastructure that they are paying for. They can see the benefits in wireless infrastructures, but the current impediment is still regulations." However, he believes that government can achieve the objective of digital cities and delivering e-services to citizens.
Business development director at Storm Telecom, Dave Gale, says: "Leadership should come from municipalities. They should not lose sight of their own mandates and what they aim to achieve. Everyone talks about technology bridging the communication gap, but they should look at the socio-economic issues, with technology as an enabler."
Mark Baptiste, director for Cisco Systems, says: "I do not think that digital cities is an empty promise by government, but it is all about timing, if the timing is not right the business case will not work." He also believes that the private sector should educate government on possibilities, and how to go about achieving set goals. The majority of industry players are positive, and believe that this is not going to be an empty promise from government. It will take hard work, through partnerships, and it will not happen overnight, but it will happen, they believe.
The issue of legislation has been a great focal point in the digital cities debate and how to get around it is a question that many have asked, but, says De Klerk: "It is not about getting around legislation, but finding legislation that is supportive. Legislation is important, but should not be prohibitive." Bacher believes in an open market, and says that local loop unbundling is the key to reaching that goal. He adds that co-operation between Telkom, the SNO, government and the private sector is the only answer for making digital cities and e-services a reality.