There have been endless proposals and public hearings, but South Africans are not much closer to enjoying drastic reductions in the cost of data.
There are several reasons for this. The processes ICASA is using to engage with the industry are too cumbersome and too slow.
Additionally, when ICASA does makes a decision, the mobile industry finds myriad reasons to delay implementation.
A perfect example of this is Cell C’s urgent application filed at the South Gauteng High Court on Wednesday 6 June 2018 to seek a postponement of the implementation of the End-User and Subscriber Service Charter Regulations published on 7 May 2018.
Although, in defence of Cell C, behind the scenes the other mobile operators also asked for extensions ranging between two and six months.
In a recent media briefing ICASA councillor, Botlenyana Mokhele, said that the review of the 2016 regulations was underpinned by the general concern about the data expiry and out-of-bundle data rules which are perceived as prejudicial to consumers.
On 6 June ICASA published amendments to the End-user and Subscriber Service Charter regulation of 7 August 2017. The main changes are:
- Usage notification: All licensees are required to send usage depletion notifications to consumers when their usage is at 50%, 80% and 100% depletion levels.
- Rollover of data: All licensees are required to provide an option to consumers to rollover unused data. The new regulations do not specify the roll-over period. It is ICASA’s view that competition in the market will determine the number of months users can roll-over their data.
- Transfer of data: All licensees are required to provide an option to consumer to transfer data to other users on the same network.
- Out-of-bundle billing: All licensees are no longer permitted to charge consumers out-of-bundle rates for data when their data has run out, unless the consumer has given specific prior consent.
But here is the problem: it was expected that the mobile industry would have been able to comply within the 30-day period.
Some operators had already made some of changes which they had anticipated after the public consultation held in March this year.
However, it appears the operators are not ready to meet all the new conditions by the deadline. Ironically, not one of the operators present at the media briefing raised any concerns about not being able to meet the implementation date.
The briefing took place before the new regulations were gazetted so there was an opportunity to have raised a concern about the short 30-day implementation period.
Industry and ICASA could have come to some other agreement but the opportunity was missed. This raises the issue of the lack of consultation with various disciplines inside the mobile companies.
Many civil society organisations had expected ICASA to announce pricing regulations that would reduce the cost of data.
The ICASA CEO, Willington Ngwepe, said that the authority is following a three-phase process.
The next phase is the identification of priority markets flowed by a review and investigation into pricing. ICASA has kept to its word to fast-track the process.
The hearing on priority markets has already taken place and it was agreed that the priority is the mobile market.
But another issue remains. The mobile operators claim that lack of spectrum is the main cause of high data costs, while government has been making noises about making spectrum available.
Government is allegedly planning to resubmit the ECA Amendment Bill incorporating many changes proposed by industry.
Meanwhile, the world moves on while South Africa deliberates.
It is not time that all players, government, regulators, and industry sit around one table and sort out this mess?
They should put politics aside and let technology drive the process.