The government is moving ahead with its plans to build a Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN), which it says will help transform South Africa into an inclusive and innovative digital society.
The WOAN concept sounds great – using all available spectrum for one network, which will reduce duplication and infrastructure cost.
This national open access network, the government promises, will provide faster and more affordable mobile broadband to all citizens.
There is only one problem, and a big one at that – the government will mess it up and it will cost South Africa billions.
Like all the ANC government’s ideological telecoms projects, they have grandiose plans with big promises, but ultimately end in failure. And you will have to pay for the mess.
You may see this view as negative and destructive, but there is a good reason.
Over the last 24 years, the ANC government has moved from one blunder to the next in the telecoms industry, hampering growth and holding the country back.
It is only through the exceptional work of the private sector, which fought against the government’s stupidity and incompetence, that we have good telecoms services in South Africa.
Here are a few examples of how the ANC government tried to block some of the best things which happened in the local telecoms market.
- In 1993 the ANC threatened to revoke the cellular licences granted to Vodacom and MTN as soon as it came to power. The ANC wanted cellular to be a separate, autonomous parastatal service offered by Telkom.
- After the ANC gained power, it provided Telkom with a decade-long monopoly in the fixed-line market by preventing companies from building their own networks.
- VoIP services like Skype were illegal in South Africa until 2005. Only specially-licensed operators like Telkom, Vodacom, and MTN were allowed to carry voice calls in South Africa.
- When competition was set to arrive in South Africa, former Minister of Communications Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri fought as hard as she could to stop it. Mercifully she failed.
- In 2007 the former communications minister effectively blocked both SEACOM and EASSy from landing in South Africa.
- The Department of Communications, through the government’s ineptitude and inaction, missed the international deadline to migrate from analogue to digital broadcasting. In fact, this process should have been completed in 2011, but is still dragging on.
There are numerous other examples of how government initiatives in the telecoms market failed, which include:
- The City of Johannesburg’s broadband network project, which was ruined because of insidious corruption.
- The Eastern Cape broadband project, which is supposed to connect the Eastern Cape’s government departments and offer Wi-Fi access, is now marred by infighting between National Treasury executives, SITA, and the Eastern Cape government.
With its dismal track record, the ANC government should not be allowed near anything to do with telecoms, let alone being in charge of a national network project.
We have heard it all before
Unbeknownst to many people, the government’s idea of the national wireless network to service citizens is nothing new.
This network, she said, would form part of their plan to offer broadband infrastructure to “advance its socio-economic development goals”.
At that stage Sentech already had a wireless broadband network, and the minister said this network would be expanded beyond its existing footprint and offer voice services.
She said the government had decided to invest in wireless broadband networks as they were less costly to roll out than fixed lines, especially to remote and rural areas.
Unsurprisingly, nothing came of these plans, and in November 2009 Sentech switched off its wireless network.
Competition on the network layer is important
Additionally, without the private sector competing on the network level we would not have had national mobile networks or Vumatel offering fibre to thousands of households.
To ensure further competition in the mobile market, the private sector should get more spectrum – both existing players and new entrants.
The government’s WOAN plans may well go the same way as Sentech’s MyWireless network, and they should not be allowed to hog valuable spectrum in the process.
It the government insists on testing the viability of its ideological projects, let it not be at the expense of progress by the private sector.
Auction high-demand spectrum immediately, and keep some LTE spectrum aside for its WOAN plans.
This way we at least ensure that the current mess – which saw the ICT industry missing out on more spectrum and increased competition for a decade – does not continue.