In the current South African communications context disruptions can have both negative and positive outcomes. Cell C’s introduction of WiFi Calling enabled a simple and cost efficient way to extend operator voice coverage and introduced a more affordable way to communicate when travelling abroad. Technically it may not be a major breakthrough, as it has been around for some years, but it certainly is a great marketing initiative. Will a small operator line Cell C disrupt the others in the major league? It is doubtful, but it’s a good try.
The first disruption was the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA)’s announcement of the spectrum auction. Then came an even bigger disruption, the interdict by Siyabonga Cwele, Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) applying to the courts to halt the auction. ICASA has not taken it lying down but has vowed to fight the interim interdict when the case returns to the courts.
The ICASA auction announcement had another positive reaction: it propelled the minister to get cabinet to approve the National Integrated ICT Policy which had been sitting with them for over seven months, never mind that it is already several years overdue.
It is difficult to understand the procrastination, as President Jacob Zuma has in two successive years spoken about the importance of broadband in his state of the nation address. Did government not make the connection between the policy and requirement for spectrum? Or were there other forces at play?
We now have a policy that has set the cat among the pigeons. Creating a wireless open access network (OAN) is an absurd proposal. It has not worked anywhere in the world. The Minister Cwele cited Mexico and Rwanda as examples of countries where it was successfully implemented. Hardly examples on which to build our future broadband network. Who would run such a network? In a media statement the minister suggested a consortium consisting of entities such as current holders of electronic communication services and electronic communication network licences, infrastructure companies, private equity investors, SMMEs, internet service providers, over the top players and mobile virtual network operators.
Who in their right mind would believe that current network operators will open their networks and hand back their allocated spectrum to a consortium? Who is advising the minister ? He in fact a medical practitioner and confesses that he is not a communications expert.
The white paper received mixed responses. Some were carefully worded but ending with a number of concerns. Perhaps ICASA’s response was the most significant when CEO, Col. Pakamile Pongwana said the proposals would take South Africa back to 1994 when the country had one monopoly, and that creating it again makes no sense. This was as a result of the minister in one of his addresses saying that Telkom would be the company to manage a national broadband network. However this was retracted shortly afterwards. Maybe it was not just a slip of the tongue?
After the release of the white paper a two day symposium was held to discuss the way forward and to look at what legislation had to be amended. On the heels of the symposium Minister Cwele appointed a new director general, former ICASA councillor Robert Nkuna who is no stranger to the industry. He takes over from Rosey Sekese, who left under a cloud earlier in 2016. Nkuna was part of the panel that worked on the National Integrated ICT Policy white paper. He has two major tasks: to get DTPS working again and make sensible decisions around the new but flawed policy.
As we enter another year we can expect more disruption; there is still the question of open internet. How open will it remain? Do we really want or need more government intervention? Let ICASA and industry work it out!
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