Minister withdraws ECA Amendment Bill

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has withdrawn the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill, according to the DA.

DA Shadow Minister of Telecommunications Marian Shinn told MyBroadband that that Ndabeni-Abrahams announced the withdrawal in a letter to the parliamentary portfolio committee on telecommunications.

The bill dealt with the allocation of spectrum for mobile networks and the establishment of the WOAN – Wholesale Open Access Network.

The bill was heavily criticised by the telecoms industry and mobile network companies, which stated that it will result in a massive failure by the government and delay the much-needed allocation of radio spectrum.

While the bill initially stated that the WOAN will be the government’s priority in terms of spectrum allocation – and that spectrum may be taken away from licensed network operators – this stance softened after mobile networks provided feedback to the government on the matter.

Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub said in 2018 that the company supports a compromise between existing regulations and the WOAN proposed by the government.

Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko was more direct in his criticism of the WOAN, and stated in 2018 that he did not think the WOAN policy was the ideal way forward – but Telkom was supporting it because it was government policy and the quickest solution to the problem of spectrum allocation.

The compromise between mobile networks and the government over the WOAN would have seen the likes of Vodacom and Telkom purchasing capacity on the wholesale network and would in exchange receive additional spectrum for their own operations.

Withdrawal is welcomed

The withdrawal of the bill comes after the government stated at the end of 2017 that it will establish its WOAN in South Africa.

“We are going ahead with the establishment of the WOAN. There’s is no intention to establish a government-owned WOAN. The WOAN will be a private sector-led initiative,” it said at the time.

The purpose of the WOAN was to create competition in the mobile data market, with the aim of driving data prices down in the country. This was called into question by many industry players, however, who stated that a quicker and easier way to bring down data prices was to allocate additional spectrum to established mobile network operators.

The letter to the portfolio committee stated that the bill will now be subject to further deliberations between the government and industry. This will take place alongside an assessment of what is needed in terms of policy and regulations to drive the 4th industrial revolution in South Africa.

Shinn said the DA welcomes the move by the minister.

“We welcome her emphasis on the proposed minimal role that government will play as it realises that the private sector is best able to drive telecommunications advances to the benefit of the entire nation. She said the government will focus on regulatory and policy matters,” said Shinn.

“The withdrawal of the bill is a defeat for former department officials who played a key role in crafting the ICT Policy White paper, starting in 2013, and its subsequent conversion into the bill. The DA looks forward to a more dynamic, investor-friendly regulatory environment that promotes innovation and competition.”

Now read: Vodacom explains “best network” claim

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Minister withdraws ECA Amendment Bill