South Africa’s telecommunications industry is its greatest post-apartheid accomplishment, yet the Department of Telecommunications wants to undermine it.
This is according to the CEO of the Free Market Foundation, Leon Louw, who was speaking at a workshop on amendments to the Electronic Communications Act.
Louw’s presentation to the department focused on its proposed wholesale open access network (WOAN).
Under the proposed amendments, the department wants to establish a national wireless carrier that operates on a wholesale open access basis.
The WOAN will receive the unassigned high-demand spectrum that mobile network operators have been begging for, which is suitable for improving 4G speeds and coverage.
The lack of access to this spectrum has resulted in operators investing inefficiently, which is a barrier to mobile data prices in South Africa decreasing.
The Bill also suggests that mobile operators give back the spectrum that has already been assigned to them, which will then be given to the WOAN.
Louw said the Free Market Foundation was entirely opposed to the idea of the WOAN, despite operators supporting the idea of a hybrid or joint model.
The “hybrid model” is where the government gets its WOAN, but operators get to keep their spectrum.
Vodacom, MTN, and Cell C also suggested that any spectrum the WOAN doesn’t need should be licensed to operators, whether by auction or another method.
Telkom said the WOAN should get all the unassigned high-demand spectrum.
“There is no logic whatsoever that there has to be a WOAN,” said Louw.
“What you’re doing is completely bizarre – you want to dismantle your own accomplishment.”
He said the department must not mess with its great success story, which benefits the poorest of the poor, and villages around the country.
“They might not have LTE, but they probably do have some kind of access,” said Louw.
The department should not look at a rare and unproven national network initiative, and should instead build on the success of the telecommunications industry, he added.
“Maybe six out of the world’s 200 countries have tried a WOAN, and they have all failed,” said Louw.
“We’re looking to the world’s losers.”
Louw further warned that the ECA Amendment Bill is open to legal challenges.
“We consider ourselves experts in the Constitution. We’ve won all of the cases we’ve brought before the Constitutional Court,” he said.
One point of concern was the socio-economic impact assessment of the Bill, which was not done according to the Presidency’s guidelines.
“If anyone tries to proceed with this, it may be tied up in litigation [for years],” said Louw.