If the real issue was not so serious one could equate it with one of Shakespeare’s better-known comedies, “Much ado about nothing”. The opposition to over the top (OTT) services is a cause for serious concern because it is about stifling innovation – and already too much of that is happening in South Africa.
At Africom 2014, held in Cape Town, there was a robust panel discussion debating the question “Can telcos and the new wave of OTT services work together?” Not all the panellists were optimistic about working together with OTT providers, who provide products (e.g WhatsApp and Skype) over the internet and bypass traditional distribution, mainly because of potential loss of revenue and the fear of being classed as a “pipe provider”.
MTN is known for having expressed opposition to OTT players and their call to allow services to be accessed free of charge. Ahmad Faroukh of MTN responded that he did not want to block social media, and that what was needed was a win-win situation between MTN and all social networks. “Operators are making huge investments to grow the networks; it cannot be one-sided, operators want to make money. That is why we are investing in networks.” The panel did not come to a definite conclusion, but maintained a middle path.
Communications analyst Arthur Goldstuck , who chaired the 2014 panel, said at the time that government is clearly misunderstanding the information and communications technology (ICT) sector and the contribution that a connected population can make to accelerate the country’s economy. MTN responded by saying that the main priority should be to build an eco-system together and charge for OTT services through the operator for a better and more sustainable service for all.
Fast forward to 2016. So have we moved on? I think not. Instead we have moved backwards. This was clearly shown by the arrangement, at the eleventh hour, of a hearing in parliament to discuss the OTT issue. It was scheduled by the Portfolio Committee on Telecommunication and Postal Services.The call for the hearing was apparently made to the mobile operators. It turned out to be “much ado about nothing”.
The stated purpose of the hearing was to determine the impact of OTT providers on competition in the local market and whether policy interventions were required to regulate them. There were arguments in favour of and arguments against OTT services. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) entered the fray saying that it would launch an inquiry to examine the impact of OTT on the local market and that it believed that the public could benefit from OTT.
The Department of Posts and Telecommunications (DTPS) broke their silence on the subject and told the hearing that they would be informed by the proceedings to formulate OTT regulations which would be published as part of the National Integrated Policy White Paper expected to be provided to cabinet in March 2016.
The DTPS said the White Paper would include items such as the principle of net neutrality, concerns relating to the implementation of regulation and maintaining healthy competition within the industry.
It is clear that we still do not understand the value of free enterprise. What is of even greater concern is that the government responded to pressure by the mobile operators to arrange a hearing to support their case which had one aim: to maintain or even increase their profits. Cell C and Telkom Mobile were notably absent, except that Cell C made it clear that they do not support OTT regulations or restrictions.
To reiterate Goldstuck’s comment in 2014 – it seems that government does not understand the potential contribution to the economy of a connected population. Should government not rather spend its energy to free up frequency spectrum so that mobile operators can expand long-term evolution (LTE) without having to compromise their voice services?
All we want is to keep Skype, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts and a host of free apps, free!