Altech win stands, as minister rests case

ALTECH’s landmark high court victory winning liberalisation for the telecoms sector will stand, with Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri deciding not to escalate the issue to the Supreme Court of Appeal.

The minister’s capitulation means Altech and about 300 other voice and data carriers can build their own network infrastructure with no further risk of their investment being legally challenged.

Although the industry had already celebrated its long-awaited freedom, there was a risk Matsepe-Casaburri would continue to fight to protect her unpopular policy of managed liberalisation.

On Friday the threat dissolved with a statement that she had decided not to petition the supreme court “in the interest of the information and communications technologies sector".

The statement said Matsepe Casaburri had been made out to be the villain over the past few months for opposing Altech’s court action to obtain a network licence. But she had done so because every law should be upheld.

Previously only a few major operators had the right to provide telecoms networks, which has artificially inflated the price of bandwidth by forcing them to lease their backbone from the dominant players Telkom, Neotel or the cellular networks.

The new Electronic Communications Act created a new and highly valuable licence to grant permission to build their own network.

The minister said those could only be granted by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) upon her authorisation. But the high court upheld Altech’s belief that companies already licensed to provide value- added network services could automatically convert that into the new variety.

Whether managed liberalisation was the correct policy was not the current debate, the minister said. But if she continued the legal action Icasa would not be able to convert the now-defunct licences by the January 19 deadline. That would require a legal amendment to extend the conversion period, and could delay the process to late 2010. None of this would be in the interests of the industry or consumers, she said. So the minister had decided not to fight on and the regulator was encouraged to complete the conversions by January 19, her statement said.

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Altech win stands, as minister rests case