[By Duncan McLeod] The department of communications has called a colloquium this week to seek public input on national broadband policy. Previously, it would have been little more than a talk shop. But something constructive may flow out of this meeting.
Communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda has breathed fresh life into a ministry left moribund by his predecessor, the late Ivy Matsepe- Casaburri.
The retired SA National Defence Force general has approached his new portfolio with almost military precision, going to the heart of the problems afflicting SA’s telecommunications sector.
Within weeks of taking of office he had identified key reasons why telecoms prices remain stubbornly high. Now he’s setting about tackling each of these with militaristic discipline.
He’s secured a reduction in interconnection rates from the mobile operators. These reduced rates will take effect in the first quarter of next year. Though the reductions aren’t as much as parliamentarians and smaller telecoms players had been hoping for, they’re a start.
Cell C and Virgin Mobile are already adjusting their tariffs to take advantage of the reduced charges. And new market players, including ECN Telecommunications, are expected to venture into the mobile space for the first time. This should result in further downward pressure on mobile tariffs in the next few years.
Of course, the job of regulating interconnection rates belongs to the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa). But the authority was taking too long to deal with the issue, and so Nyanda was right to ratchet up the pressure.
The minister lit a fire under Icasa. And pressure from parliament’s portfolio committee on communications also helped.
The intervention has been appropriate. It has not undermined Icasa’s independence, which is enshrined in the constitution. In fact, parliament was simply doing its job by shining a light on the problems that are plaguing the authority.
I get the distinct impression that the mobile operators underestimated the determination of Nyanda to bring down interconnection rates. They deny that, of course.
My bet is that the big incumbent operators — Vodacom, MTN and Telkom — are now watching Nyanda and his feisty director-general, Mamodupi Mohlala, with a newfound sense of trepidation.
Interconnection is only the first of a number of interventions that the department of communications has planned to bring down SA ’s notoriously high telecoms prices.
Next on Nyanda’s checklist is the critical area of broadband. His office has already published a draft policy document dealing with the subject. This week’s colloquium is meant to supplement the more than 50 written submissions the department of communications has already received in response to the draft document.
Government says it wants to increase the accessibility and affordability of broadband throughout the country. It’s a lofty goal best achieved through market forces. The draft document is broadly in favour of free markets, though it sets out a role for government in enabling competition and assisting in the delivery of services to uneconomical and underserviced areas.
With key industry figures expected to attend the two-day meeting, the stage has been set for a colourful debate. Perhaps there’ll even be fireworks.
The incumbents will use the platform to argue their positions, like they always do. This time, though, there’s a minister in place who seems less inclined to bend to their will.
- McLeod is editor of TechCentral
- This column is also published in the Financial Mail