EC Amendment Bill 2012

July 30th, 2012, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

by Hans van de Groenendaal, EngineerIT

The Department of Communications is planning to create another body, additional to ICASA, to take over spectrum management.

One of the many changes proposed in the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill, 2012 is the establishment of a Spectrum Management Agency within the portfolio of the Minister of Communications, Dina Pule, with the overall responsibility for the country’s spectrum as contemplated in the White Paper on Broadcasting Policy, 1998.

The explanatory document as an addendum to the Bill states that the minister acts as the custodian of the spectrum on behalf of the people of South Africa. It further states that the minister represents South Africa at the International Telecoms Union. This includes, inter alia, the allocation of the radio frequency spectrum to various radiocommunication services. The minister is responsible under the new Act, once implemented, for all international spectrum matters pertaining to South Africa, including regional and sub-regional spectrum planning, all cases concerning international harmful interference and international frequency coordination.

So the minister is taking over what was originally the job of the Independent Commuications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). Mind you, as a concession, the documents say that the Department of Communications (DoC) will liaise with ICASA in such matters.

One cannot help but question why the minister wants to take over this role. Was the original idea not to have an independent regulator that could act in the interests of all, without bias or government or political interference?

Admittedly ICASA has not been the most efficient organisation in dealing with some of the frequency management issues, but is that not the fault of the ministry?

ICASA is funded from the DoC budget and since the beginning has been underfunded. All the previous and current chairmen of the ICASA council have repeatedly said that the agency is underfunded and does not have the budget to appoint the required number and calibre of staff to carry out its mandate. Furthermore, once the technical staff acquire the necessary experience they are poached by industry at levels of remuneration that ICASA cannot meet.

Licence fees accrue directly to the treasury and not to ICASA, so the agency has no financial incentive to carry out its mandate or generate funding to employ the right level and number of staff. So have the minister and her predecessors not set up ICASA up for failure?

Looking at the proposed amendments, the agency will have a board of not more than seven non-executive members appointed by the minister on the recommendation of an election committee and one executive member. The minister will appoint the chairman and vice-chairman from the non-executive members, and the board will appoint a CEO with the approval of the minister. In addition, the board will determine the structure of the agency, the conditions of service, remuneration and service benefits of the personnel of the agency after consultation with the minister of finance. A very expensive set-up!

Post office experience?

The post of CEO will be advertised, and according to section 83 (3a) must have qualifications or experience relevant to the functions of the post office. It seems strange that the ministry regards a person with post office experience to be qualified to head up a spectrum management agency.

I believe the whole concept of a spectrum management agency is ill-conceived and an expensive non-necessity. By relooking at the ICASA funding model enabling the authority to appoint a few extra staff members, ICASA could do the job of the proposed Spectrum Management Agency at substantially less of a burden on the tax payer.

Is this whole initiative because ICASA is fending off interference from the DoC and does not want to dance to the ministry’s tune? So by establishing the new agency and diminishing ICASA’s role, government is taking control. This is of great concern, particularly as the lines between party and government are becoming more and more blurred and any independence of spectrum management and telecommunications provision may be compromised.

There are a number of provisions in the Amendment Bill that are a credit to the DoC, such as correcting errors in the current EC Act, but overall the Bill is unacceptable. Is the DoC trying to rush the Bill through? At the time of writing, the Bill had not be mentioned on the DoC website and had not be made publicly available other than through the government printer and its agencies.

Industry should study the Bill in detail and add its voice of concern. The closing date for comment about the draft EC Amendment Bill is 30 August 2012.

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