Should we be worried if “independent” is taking on a meaning different to the one in dictionaries? I certainly believe so. Perhaps there are different levels of “independence”, as is the case with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA)? Looking at recent developments in the South African regulatory environment, it would certainly appear so.
If it is not disruptive enough to have to report to two ministers, then being taken to court by one of your masters to stop you from performing your primary task, certainly is. One can only ask why, after so many years, South Africans are still being denied access to adequate broadband? There can only be one answer to this question: politics, or could it be a question of government not understanding the important role that access to broadband offers this country? We are so often told that South Africa is the leading country on the African continent but when it comes to access to broadband communication we are lagging behind many African countries.
The whole saga started when President Jacob Zuma split the communication portfolio into two and appointed two ministers to whom ICASA has to answer. Matters between the two ministers were not good from the start, and resulted in President Zuma having to broker a Memorandum of Understanding so that the Department of Communication and the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services could work together.
Then came the long awaited White Paper on the broadband saga with which various previous minsters had been involved. Last year we were promised the release of the White Paper for public comment and consultation by 31 March 2016. The date has come and gone. Now five months later the paper has still not seen the light of day. It is apparently still under deliberation by cabinet.
On 15 July 2016, despite the absence of the broadband white paper, ICASA issued an invitation in the Government Gazette (no. 40145) for bids for a radio frequency spectrum licence to provide mobile broadband wireless services for urban and rural areas.
There was an outcry from the Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services that ICASA had acted without the official government policy which the White Paper was expected to have spelt out. But ICASA said it was simply following its mandate, whereby the Electronic Communications Act gives ICASA the discretion to develop regulations setting out the procedures and criteria for radio frequency spectrum licences in instances where there is insufficient spectrum available to accommodate demand.
The 61-page bid document sets out the conditions for the auction and the process to be followed. If all goes to plan the first licences in the newly available spectrum could be issued as early as 28 March 2017. Some sectors of the communications industry have lauded ICASA while others were a little more cautious and circumspect in agreeing that it was a good idea. Now Minister Siyabonga Cwele is taking ICASA to court to stop the process. If it wasn’t so serious to again delay the provision of spectrum for operators one could have just sat back and watched the fun.
Leaders of some of South Africa’s biggest ICT companies, including the four mobile operators, recently met to understand and find mechanisms that they could recommend to the minister and ICASA in order to resolve the impasse between them. They agreed that dialogue would be the only way and that court action should be avoided.
The consultation process between the minister and ICASA should include all stakeholders so that an outcome can be brokered that will be of benefit to all South Africans.
It is still puzzling why the White Paper on broadband cannot be approved by cabinet. Clearly there are other motives. An auction would favour the incumbents but that is clearly not the way government would like to see it go.
Perhaps we should rewrite the dictionary’s meaning of “independent”.