Please don’t mess this one up as well, DoC

The Department of Communications (DoC) is hosting a National Integrated ICT Policy Colloquium aimed at creating a platform for the ICT industry to review the Department’s ICT policies.

According to the DoC this colloquium will assist it to promote sustainable ICT policies, which will increase universal access to ICT services throughout South Africa and the surrounding regions.

Now that the formalities are out of the way, let’s get to real issue: Government and the Department of Communications are stifling telecoms developments and still pinning their hopes on a few well-worded policies and talk shops to miraculously solve the country’s telecommunications and ICT problems.

If the DoC actually listened to what industry players and consumers have been saying for the last decade we would not need yet another talk shop to try to improve SA’s ICT and telecoms services.

History repeating itself

This is not the first time (or in fact second time) that the DoC has held a telecoms colloquium to determine the best way forward.

In 2005 the communications department hosted two telecommunications colloquium to find ways to drive down prices for telecoms services in South Africa.

With topics like “how the policy and regulatory framework can contribute towards reducing the cost of telecommunications” and “how ICT infrastructure issues like network models, broadband and unbundling of the local loop can contribute to reducing the cost of telecommunications” you will be excused for getting a distinct feeling of déjà-vu.

What is most troubling however is not the fact that we have another colloquium, but why another colloquium is needed.

At the two colloquiums held in 2005 the industry’s views were clear: increase competition through licensing, spectrum assignment and LLU.

Even the international speakers invited by the DoC to these events (from the ITU and OECD) said that better pricing and services are simple elements of competition. Both speakers advised increasing competition as quickly as possible.

Then deputy communications minister Roy Padayachie promised delegates an action plan after 8 weeks and the implementation to follow short afterwards. It is now 7 years later and we are still waiting for the DoC to make good on its promises.

What the DoC actually did

With the near-unanimous call from industry and consumers to increase competition one would naturally assume that the DoC set out to license as many companies as possible to build infrastructure, give them the tools to do this (like suitable spectrum) and drive LLU initiatives. Not so.

Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri
Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

Instead the late minister of communications Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri fought tooth and nail to stop the licensing of additional infrastructure players in SA – even getting an urgent court interdict from the Johannesburg High Court to prevent the licensing of more companies which can build networks and provide their own telecoms services.

Local Loop Unbundling also did not make much progress since 2005, and valuable spectrum is still being wasted by not being assigned.

The DoC even tried to stop international cable systems such SEACOM and EASSy from landing in South Africa (we are not making this stuff up!).

But despite the DoC’s tremendous efforts to stifle competition, they could not hold it back. Altech won a court battle against the DoC to license more telecoms operators, and additional international cable systems eventually landed in South Africa.

The impact of competition was exactly what people predicted: better services and lower prices. It is hard to imagine not having uncapped ADSL services or still paying hundreds of Rands per GB for mobile broadband, but if the DoC won their legal battle against Altech this may well have been the case.

The way forward

Competition continues to drive down prices and deliver more innovative solutions, and if the DoC wants to achieve anything with its latest talk shop (sorry; “colloquium”) they will be well advised to listen to industry and take pro-active measures to boost competition.

The need for a strong and independent regulator is equally important. The positive effect of ICASA’s decision to force Telkom to drop wholesale ADSL prices by 30% resulted in lower retail rates within days – imagine what can be achieved if you give ICASA even more teeth.

Pro-active measures such as assigning LTE spectrum to companies that will actually use it, making it easier for operators to roll out networks and improving wholesale broadband models (both fixed line mobile) will also help.

From previous experience I am rather pessimistic when it comes to our beloved Department of Communications, but maybe – just maybe – this colloquium will be different.

Note: Today’s (19 April 2012) DoC colloquium was supposed to start at 09:00, but by the time of publication (10:00) the event was yet to officially kick off.

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Please don’t mess this one up as well, DoC