Parliament’s portfolio committee on telecommunications & postal services has set aside a full day later this month to probe so-called “over the top” (OTT) services to determine whether policy interventions are required to govern them.
OTT services include the likes of voice-over-Internet protocol and messaging applications WhatsApp, Messenger and Skype. Several local operators, including MTN, Vodacom and Telkom, have warned vocally in the past 18 months that OTT providers should be regulated to ensure fairer competition.
The parliamentary committee will hold the hearings on 26 January at a venue still to be determined.
According to the committee, the hearings will consider what policy and regulatory interventions might be necessary. They will also look at the impact of OTT services on competition in South Africa’s telecoms industry and ask whether there is a need for OTT providers to be defined as telecoms services (providing voice and data) or as telecoms infrastructure.
If they are determined to be the latter, then the committee wants to know whether they should be subject to South African licensing and regulatory obligations, including emergency call access and legal interception requirements.
In 2014, former MTN South Africa CEO Ahmad Farroukh launched a broadside against OTT providers, saying the operator was not prepared to spend billions of dollars building advanced telecoms networks just so that OTT players could get a “free ride” by competing with MTN using its own costly infrastructure.
Farroukh said OTT players — including companies such as Google, Facebook and Facebook-owned WhatsApp — had to reach a “certain understanding”.
He said a balance was needed, describing the way OTT players used mobile operators’ networks as “unfair”.
OTT providers routinely accused the operators of being greedy, when, in fact, the reverse was true, Farroukh said.
Vodacom and Telkom have also warned that some sort of regulation is necessary to govern OTT services.
Cell C, on the other hand, has elected to work closely with OTT players, helping Facebook, for example, to launch its Free Basics service in South Africa. Free Basics offers consumers free access to a limited set of services and websites from their mobile phones.
Cell C CEO Jose Dos Santos has previously expressed an interest in working closely with OTT service providers. — © 2015 NewsCentral Media