SA gov’t telecom regulations debated at conference

The implications of the South African government’s regulations on the telecommunications industry were under discussion last week at a two-day colloquium organized by the Independent Communications Authority (Icasa) and held at The Campus, Bryanston.

Working group discussions were held regarding the various changes resulting from the ministerial determinations. Some of these included the fact that Value-Added Network Services (VANS) operators may carry voice using any protocol, and VANS services may also be provided through telecommunication facilities other than those supplied by Telkom SA Ltd. and the SNO.

VANS operators may also lease or cede, or sublet any of their telecommunications facilities, while Private Telecommunications Network (PTN) operators may lease, cede or resell spare capacity and facilities. And these changes, set to come into effect from Feb. 1 next year, brought about interesting debates from stakeholders at the event.

From the report-back sessions, following the working group discussions, key issues that raised heated debate included interconnection — since voice over IP (VoIP) is set to increase competition in the voice market, regulation of service quality and what obligations were needed to be put in place regarding the various players. It was stated that since operators already had compulsory agreements regarding interconnection stipulated in their licences, it should also be a mandatory requirement to have interconnection between telecoms and VoIP providers, as this will decrease costs.

But most were in agreement that the present guidelines were not conducive to the new situation, and so VoIP providers and operators, as well as the regulator, should build new ground rules for this. With the liberalization, it was also advised that Icasa will need to be vigilant in ensuring quality service. The opening of the market brought concern to some that consumers would be exploited by “fly-by-night” operators. But counter-arguments to this also surfaced, as Gateway Communications’ Mike van den Bergh said regulation of quality of service is needed only if customers do not have freedom of choice, even if customers decided to pay less for a lower quality service.

From the feedback, it seemed that most stakeholders wanted a clear and precise game plan to be formulated, with Karl Socikwa, chairman of the interim SNO board, calling for a national broadband policy to ensure competition in the ICT sector. Most saw the regulations as a step forward in order to prevent a dominant player from abusing its position, but Socikwa says the “lack of any rules will allow powerful operators to simply get stronger, and new entrants are likely to fail”.

However, Telkom says that if the ministerial determinations are put in context of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 then there will be a minor impact upon the regulatory framework. Telkom’s view was at odds with much of the industry when it stated that, in the context of the Act, the provision of telecommunication facilities is a service that can only be provided by people who are licensed to provide them. This approach differs greatly from that taken by the VANS providers, who foresee major regulatory implications coming out of this.

In his closing remarks, Mandla Langa, chairman of Icasa, thanked the 350 representatives who participated, and said the locking of horns and heated debates contributed greatly to Icasa’s focus on various issues. “Icasa will take into consideration the issues raised, and the questions asked by the various parties, as we work through our task of developing regulations to drive the industry forward,” he stated. Icasa says it will also publish a report summarizing the views and comments received during the colloquium.

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