Does SA need more broadband, telecoms competition?

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) announced at a press briefing on Thursday, 13 March 2014, that it is launching an inquiry into the state of competition in the South African information and communications technology (ICT) sector.

According to Icasa, the inquiry will seek to address the following issues:

  • The current state of competition in the ICT sector as a whole;
  • Challenges to creating a level playing field across platforms;
  • The impact of convergence, net neutrality and disruptive technologies on the competitive landscape;
  • The role of fixed (fibre) and wireless (high demand spectrum) in enabling competition; and
  • The tension between consolidation and plurality in the ICT sector.

Speaking to media and other stakeholders, Icasa councillor William Currie said that there are more than 700 players licensed to provide networks and network services in South Africa, of which 416 are operational.

Despite this profusion of licensees, the cost to communicate has not come down substantially in South Africa, which Currie said suggests that the equation ‘more competition equals lower prices’ does not seem to hold in simple terms.

Not a rhetorical question

The question of whether South Africa needs more competition in the telecommunications space does not have a simple answer. One might be tempted to just shout, “Yes!”, but in reality the answer is probably a variant of, “Yes, but…”

One of the issues Icasa specifically mentioned is the assignment of spectrum – something for which South Africa’s mobile operators have been clamouring, saying they need it to roll out new high speed mobile broadband technology such as Long Term Evolution (LTE).

Most recently, Icasa issued an invitation to apply (ITA) for the spectrum in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands towards the end of 2011 (which, as it did so many times before, it eventually retracted).

In this ITA, Icasa proposed that much of the spectrum should be split between a government-run operator, a wholesale operator which may not offer services at retail, and brand new entrants.

Established players such as Vodacom and MTN balked at this, saying that the spectrum would be far better used in their hands.

Given the amount of money the likes of Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom invest in their networks every year, there is some merit to their argument.

However, there is also merit to the argument that greater competition is required not only for Vodacom and MTN (which Icasa pointed out control about 80% of the market), but in the fixed broadband space as well.

One can only hope that Icasa’s inquiry gives them the information they need to effectively balance the two ends of the scale.

Quizzed on what information Icasa expects to receive from industry that it didn’t get from its 2011 ITA, councillor Marcia Socikwa said that they are “sitting with worse information asymmetries than when we issued the ITAs”.

Consolidation

Another development in South Africa’s ICT sector Icasa said it wants to take a look at is the consolidation that is happening, even among big players.

Vodacom has put in a bid to acquire Neotel, and MTN and Telkom have signed a Heads of Agreement that will see the two operators share one another’s networks, while MTN takes operational responsibility for their radio access networks.

Asked whether their inquiry will have any bearing on these transactions, Currie said that they don’t know yet.

Process

Currie explained that the inquiry will be an iterative process and go through a number of stages.

Initially responses will be solicited through written submissions and oral representations at a public hearing, Icasa said in a statement issued at the launch of the inquiry.

Key areas requiring further research and engagement with stakeholders will then be identified.

Icasa said that these will then lead to a draft position paper on competition in the ICT sector, which will be subject to a further public comment process.

Once the public consultation process is complete, Icasa will issue the findings of the inquiry as a final position paper.

Delays?

Icasa said that it expects that the inquiry will take 6–8 months to complete, leading to questions about whether it will cause delays in the regulator’s other activities involving the topics the inquiry covers.

Regarding delays in the issuing of the highly sought-after spectrum, Currie said that they have been waiting for a policy direction from the Ministry of Communications for some years now.

Even assuming that the Ministry delivers the policy direction before South Africa’s general elections in May as promised, Currie said that the inquiry would not delay the process.

“The time between the receipt of the policy direction and the implementation thereof requires a lead time,” Currie said.

He added that just the procurement process around implementing something as big as the spectrum policy directive could require the 6–8 months the inquiry would take to complete.

Make your submission

Icasa has invited interested parties to make their written submissions within 60 working days of 13 March 2014, where they should indicate if they also wish to make oral representations.

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Does SA need more broadband, telecoms competition?