This year has been yet another disaster for the communications industry. The Department of Communications and Postal Services (DTPS) – to use a fashionable word – “captured” the industry and created diversions that will delay ubiquitous rollout of affordable broadband to millions of South Africans for another year, or even several years.
It started in July 2016 when the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) published its plans to auction segments of the spectrum.
This was cautiously welcomed by the industry but was promptly followed by a court interdict from Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Dr. Siyabonga Cwele, to stop the process. This was granted by the court.
ICASA appealed the court decision but to date there has been no movement forward. Then, on 28 September 2017, the minister dropped the bombshell when he announced in the Integrated ICT Policy White paper that government is planning to create a wireless open access network on which companies can offer their services.
This is now referred to as the wholesale open access network (WOAN).
The white paper states that where spectrum is considered “in high demand”, it must be used for the public good to support the broader policy objective of open access and so minimise infrastructure duplication, reduce costs, and encourage service- based competition.
All high demand spectrum will be assigned on an open access basis. All current unassigned high demand spectrum will be set aside for the WOAN and the regulator will be required to consult industry regarding the assignment of this high demand spectrum.
The Free Market Foundation (FMF), in a strongly worded reaction to the white paper, said that the return of existing licence holders’ assigned high value spectrum is not only a disincentive for ICT industry development, but also amounts to the expropriation of private assets.
The creation of a wholesale monopoly wireless provider is counter-intuitive to the white paper policy objective of stimulating innovation in the sector.
The policy has completely rejected the idea of infrastructure-based competition between mobile operators, which created the mobile sector’s success story in South Africa and provided the extremely successful population coverage statistics – 99% coverage of 2G and 3G.
Speaking in parliament during the State of the Nation debate on 15 February 2017 Dr. Cwele said that government will use open access networks and natural resource, spectrum, as strategic levers to introduce real transformation and lowering of barriers to entry for blacks, small businesses and marginalised groups.
He also announced that consultation would start soon in order to prioritise the implementation and introduction of necessary legislative and regulatory changes without delay.
A report released by the GSMA (which represents 800 mobile operators world-wide) in July 2017 shows that out of the five countries that had considered a WOAN, only one, Rwanda, has rolled out a network.
Rwanda, which is one of the countries Dr. Cwele holds up as a success story, launched a LTE-based network in Kigali. The project is a public-private partnership but take up appears to be limited due to the cost of services.
In Russia the initiative failed, Kenya abandoned the idea, and Mexico has not rolled out a WOAN. So what is wrong with South Africa? Why does the DTPS ministry continue to push the country on a road of failure?
Addressing the portfolio committee for communications on Tuesday 10 October 2017, Minister Cwele talked about general agreement that this policy needed to be implemented without delay. Presumably the DTPS must have its own version of what “general agreement” means.
Nine bills will be introduced to parliament during the next sitting, including the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill and the ICASA Amendment Bill.
There may be a glimmer of hope as rumours of a compromise deal are circulating, but it remains imperative that industry stays close to the action and uses every opportunity to comment on the draft bills and posed changes to existing laws and regulations. Communication and broadband should be industry-driven.
Failing to do so we may result in next year being one of expensive court action.