Access to more data is vital for economic growth and education. Young people spend more and more time on mobile devices — the fewer regulations and the more competition we have in South Africa, the more they will be enabled to access a whole universe of educational resources. The government can either aid in empowering young people by letting go of control over data, or it can inhibit a real, transformative, empowering process by bumbling from spectrum allocation “deadline” to “deadline”. The choice, and unlimited potential, are clear: massive pressure must be put on government to get radio spectrum allocated.
The latest Data Service Market Inquiry by the Competition Commission is being conducted because the former minister “requested that the commission conduct a market inquiry into the state of competition relating to the provision of data services”. The minister was concerned about “high data costs”. The effect of the inquiry will not be to lower data costs; it is in the nature of government inquiries into the supposed “lack of competition” that they recommend more regulations, not fewer. This means higher costs for businesses in the data sector, and, in turn, higher costs for consumers.
Job creation, economic transformation, the lowering of data costs and technological innovation are being hamstrung by government inefficiency and meddling. Our data and communications networks are falling further and further behind the development curve. Those who talk about the importance of the fourth Industrial Revolution do not realise that government stands in the way of it ever happening. In parliament on 10 July, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said that her department would publish a final policy direction to communications regulator Icasa to allow for the licensing of “high-demand” spectrum. If government’s track record is anything to go by, many (if not all) of her proposed deadlines will probably fall by the wayside and the blame will be laid at the feet of the data providers.
If not for investments by MTN, Vodacom and Cell C in 4G/LTE networks, South Africans would still be using 2G or 3G. Indeed, the only reason we have 4G and LTE is because these companies were forced to allocate (“re-farm”) 2G and 3G towers to 4G. This deprives a great amount of people with old and cheap phones of services. Freeing spectrum would allow more competition with and by established network providers. The biggest problem is that the digital dividend bands, which should be freed, are being used by outmoded spectrum-hungry analogue TV broadcasters, especially the SABC. Government regulations are preventing data prices from falling.
Regarding South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television, the minister also promised to fast-track change. She promised a “renewed” broadcasting digital migration model within 90 days. Regardless of whether the deadline is met, there is a much deeper problem: government control, via the Competition Commission and Icasa, means that private businesses must operate under a cloud of uncertainty. Companies such as MTN, Vodacom and Cell C could invest in more infrastructure but they will not do so if they may be punished for implementing business plans.
The former minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, promised that the migration to digital TV would be completed by July 2020. But South Africa was meant to have completed digital migration by mid-2015. There is no reason to believe the department will adhere to the 2020 deadline. The delay of this migration inhibits private-sector growth. It does not inspire much industry confidence to be told, once again, the migration will be “fast-tracked” when it has been neglected for many years.
President Cyril Ramaphosa often refers to the fourth Industrial Revolution and its importance. The potential of 5G is also bandied about. But these concepts remain unattainable pie in the sky if spectrum is not freed to allow companies to use it efficiently and to compete freely for the custom and benefit of consumers. As long as government retains excessive control over ICT and telecoms, development will be retarded. Furthermore, government control allows for bias, which increases the probability of abuse and corruption.
Data is the oil of today, and indeed of the future. It is too important a resource to be messed with by government inefficiency and bureaucracy. We are in the 21st century, not feudal Europe where kings controlled people’s lives. Government must step out of the way of the private sector and allow technological progress to flourish. For South Africa, as a developing economy, the opportunities are endless. Access to data will increase, and prices will fall, only if government gets out of the way and allows companies to have more spectrum and compete more freely.
- Chris Hattingh is project manager at the Free Market Foundation