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OPINION: South Africa’s communications regulator given little room to work and fails to impress

As Communications Minister Dina Pule announced she was appealing the court’s decision to hand control of the set-top-boxes essential to digital migration to SABC, e.tv and free-to-air broadcasters, a familiar response emerged from the industry’s regulator – silence.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has so far been kept firmly outside the management and control of the process to switch the entire country from an  analogue to digital signal by 2015.

When quizzed by HumanIPO prior to Christmas at a stakeholder consultation event in Cape Town on whether they thought digital migration would be completed within the International Telecommunications Union’s deadline, officials shrugged their shoulders and shifted responsibility to the government while pointing to the ongoing court case.

It is true ICASA has received little or no help from the government by being kept outside of many of the major issues it was created to regulate and control.

Speaking at the consultation event on December 7, in Cape Town, ICASA researcher Honey Nonyane said: “Now the policy is we have the Minister [Dina Pule] who can decide when the digital migration will start.

“We still have to wait for direction from the Minister as to when we are starting.”

So currently all ICASA can do is devise two sets of potential regulations. One is for the dual illumination period (after the digital signal has been switched on, but before the analogue signal is switched off) and the other is for the post-migration period. However, they have no idea when either of these periods will come into play.

It is a bit like a soccer goalkeeper being told to polish his goal posts, while leaving the rest of the team to do his job for him.

Considering their back-seat role – whether it is by choice or forced upon them – it was further surprising to discover they are proposing a 650 percent increase on the annual license fee it charges telecommunications companies. Under current proposals it will rise from 0.1 percent to 0.75 percent of companies’ turnover.

The revenue from the annual license fee is designed to cover the running costs of the regulator, but the published consultation responses from those operators which will be hit by the hike show a poor opinion of ICASA’s performance.

The Internet Service Provider’s Association (IPSA) possibly penned the most toxic response to the increase.

It read: “The performance of the Authority over the past decade is not such that licensees are receiving the required value for the payment of their annual licence fees which they can legitimately expect.

“Of particular relevance in this regard is the failure of the Authority to deal with the vast number of  unlicensed operators and its failure to take steps under Chapter 10 of the ECA to introduce procompetitive remedies designed to eliminate anti-competitive pricing and conduct.”

The part government-owned Telkom, which owns operator 8ta, write in their response to the proposed increase: “To the extent that the draft GLFR  imposes additional costs on licensees it runs contrary to Government’s objective of lowering the cost of telecommunications as such costs will unavoidably be passed on to consumers.”

Not only is the hike huge, but after only publishing the consultation last week there is less than three months before the new annual licenses come into force and the industry is understandably worried and confused as to how their bottom line will be affected come March.

ICASA has demonstrated they are able to admit when they have failed or made mistakes. HumanIPO reported in December, that they were ashamed of how they have handled the allocation of sports broadcasting rights in the past, but it was also apparent they had few ideas of how to fix the problems in the future.

There is also the embarrassing matter of the appointment of Rubben Mohlaloga, charged with defrauding the Land and Agricultural Development Bank of South Africa (Land Bank) to the tune of R6 million (US$690,000).

Along with bringing down the cost of Internet access in South Africa, digital migration is the single biggest issue facing the country’s communications industry, but so far ICASA has been given a role on the sidelines.

Publicly ICASA officials continue to toe the line that the 2015 internationally agreed target will be met, but privately they express concerns the government will get this wrong and miss it badly.

It appears absurd the industry’s regulator could be kept so aggressively out of the process, especially when the High Court of Gauteng explicitly stated in its December ruling that it should be ICASA that regulates the control of set-top-boxes.

Either Pule and the South African government believe if they control a successful digital migration switchover they will reap the rewards in future elections or they do not trust ICASA with the exact kind of job they were set up to take on.

Posted in: FeaturedTelecoms

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