Telecoms policy in SA is ‘dysfunctional’ - Arthur Goldstuck

2016-07-27 14:13 - Gareth van Zyl, Fin24
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World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck.

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Johannesburg - The battle over South Africa’s wireless broadband spectrum auction highlights significant government policy missteps, says local technology analyst Arthur Goldstuck.

Debate over a planned wireless broadband spectrum by the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has split the local telecommunications industry.

Telecoms and Postal Services Minister Siyabonga Cwele on Monday announced his plan to sue Icasa over the auction, which is intended to sell frequencies for faster LTE mobile internet.

Icasa invited bidders to apply for the planned January 2017 auction despite government not yet establishing a policy direction on spectrum, said Cwele.

Cwele further accused Icasa of allegedly failing to adhere to legislation and regulations in launching the auction.

Meanwhile, Goldstuck said that both Cwele and Icasa could be in the wrong.

“In this case, both parties appear to be in the wrong. Icasa is required to await policy direction from the Minister,” Goldstuck told Fin24.

“If procedures haven't been followed, then they have to go back to the drawing board. While this could reflect poorly on Icasa, it is time we recognised the fact that the entire structure of telecoms policy in South Africa is dysfunctional.

“However, when no such direction is forthcoming, in an area that has been neglected for many years, it is not surprising to see the regulator wanting to do something,” Goldstuck said.

Telecoms industry split

The saga, in the meantime, has further split the local telecommunications sector into ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps regarding how and when spectrum is auctioned off.

South Africa’s biggest mobile network, Vodacom, last week praised Icasa for the planned wireless broadband spectrum auction, calling it a “major progressive step for the economy”.

But SA’s number three network, Cell C, said on Tuesday that the auction, in its current state, is only set to benefit companies with deep pockets and entrench the “Vodacom-MTN duopoly”.

Cell C also said the auction needs government buy-in, which it currently lacks.

However, opposition political party the Democratic Alliance (DA) said on Tuesday that Cwele should refrain from his legal threat.

“Icasa’s bold step to issue the invitation to prospective bidders came after ten years of dithering on the spectrum policy by successive ANC communications ministers,” said the DA’s Marian Shinn.

Icasa on Tuesday said that it followed the law regarding its invite for bidders to take part in the spectrum auction.

Growing internet woes

The spectrum auction battle comes amid a similar fight around South Africa’s digital migration project, which is expected to free up SABC analogue frequencies for high-speed broadband.

Over the years, legal battles have dogged the digital migration process as broadcasters and government have fought over issues such as control mechanisms for digital TV set-top boxes.

Altogether, the spectrum auction fight and the digital migration delays paint a picture of broken policies, said Goldstuck.

“Lack of consensus in the industry plays into the hands of those who would like to see digital migration and its many spin-offs delayed, or who want to see the current administration fail,” said Goldstuck.

“In truth, the ills of telecoms in SA today are the bitter fruit we are reaping from sowing seeds of disinterest, incompatibility, and unworkable policy for almost a decade now,” he said.