Icasa’s competition probe too late?

Questions (rhetorical?) posed by Icasa at Thursday’s announcement of a competition inquiry into the broader ICT sector have mostly drawn smirks in private conversations with insiders and informed outsiders.

Like asking why only one of five new pay TV licensees has actually launched (and seemingly innocently questioning why its in business rescue)….

It’s perhaps the right question, but it’s missing the crucial context of the licences being awarded more than a decade too late! Maybe Icasa’s six-month-long inquiry will uncover this.

It’s almost as if Icasa’s woken up from slumber, confused about the competitive situation in a market it’s been (not?) regulating effectively all along.

Naspers’s Multichoice (and M-Net before) has enjoyed more than two decades of exclusivity. A time during which it slowly, methodically and deliberately sewed up exclusive rights to any broadcast content that any South African would be prepared to pay to watch. It started with rugby and cricket and overseas football.

Then local soccer: not all of it, but a decent chunk. And, once the PSL was hooked on (proper) TV money, it’s stealthily increased its share of games, and its choice of games too. Anyone surprised that the Bafana/Brazil friendly was broadcast on SuperSport 4 ten days ago (national team games were historically completely untouchable)?

Noble intentions

Perhaps the market inquiry will get to grips with why Telkom Media failed to launch (a question also being posed (seemingly) sincerely by the regulator).

The regulator also seems perplexed about the proliferation of ECNS licences (following the well-known ‘Altech’ court decision which allowed companies to self-provide infrastructure). There are hundreds of the licences out there hardly worth the paper they’re printed on. Again, too little, too late. What if these licences were issued a decade earlier?

There are questions being asked about regional radio stations too.

Icasa’s questioning seems somewhat schizophrenic. On the one hand, it’s questioning why the issuing of licences hasn’t automatically translated into competition. On the other, it’s concerned about concentration of ownership in markets with extremely limited numbers of licences. Why are there fewer than a handful of private radio licences in Gauteng?

I’m reminded of (now outgoing) Naspers chief executive Koos Bekker telling Moneyweb in 2007 (!) that licences should be available to anyone:

I think if the government simply steps back and says, OK, however wants a pay-TV licence, go and collect one at the Post Office. Then you may find that 21-year-old Wits student who just has a great idea for one or other lifestyle service, who sets up in the garage and maybe succeeds. And if he fails, it’s not the government’s job. And I think the same applies all across telcoms and media.

More recently, 18 months ago, he questioned the wisdom in launching a satellite-based pay-TV competitor to DStv:

…They will come but they won’t come from conventional sources. I think the time, frankly, for launching a new satellite-based TV service is probably over. I can’t think of any successful satellite Pay-TV service launched in the last ten years anywhere in the world. The launches are all coming from the internet, so if you think about it we don’t fear another conventional old style TV service, what we fear is some sort of Netflix that sits out in the States and they offer what we offer on the internet and as broadband gets thicker and thicker the service will become more and more satisfactory until they can eventually match what we can offer by satellite.

Think about what Bekker is saying. The company he leads has the most to lose… And he himself has questioned the licensing status quo!

Beyond all of this, questions must be asked about Icasa’s ability to conduct a complex market inquiry into complicated, dynamic and inter-linked markets. This is typically the domain of the Competition Commission, but jurisdictionally, regulation in the ICT sector sits squarely with Icasa. It seems to have missed a trick or two in its call termination rates regulations – what should be a relatively straight-forward process.

We’ll see

Of course South Africans would be better off with a strong competitor to DStv.

Of course South Africans would be better off with a strong competitior to Telkom.

Of course South Africans would be better off to three of four strong mobile operators.

We’ve needed regular market inquiries for the past decade (at least!). The real question is how Icasa will seek to “remedy” the situation in markets it perceives to be uncompetitive.

The danger, as always in these situations, is a sudden lurch to over-regulation because of the mess the absence of effective regulation has caused.

* Hilton Tarrant contributes to ‘Broadband’, a column on Moneyweb covering the ICT sector in South Africa.

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Icasa’s competition probe too late?