It’s been a year of antagonism between the Minister and the ICT sector

Note to editors: The following speech was delivered in Parliament today by the DA’s Shadow Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Marian Shinn MP, during the Budget Vote on Telecommunications and Postal Services.
About a year ago, the took fright at the National Integrated Information and Communication (ICT) White Paper Policy and within months, gazetted its invitation to network operators to participate in an auction for the much sought after high demand spectrum.
There’s an impolite way to say what happened next, but let’s just say that the fan is still spinning.
It’s been a year of antagonism between the Minister and the ICT sector. Legal battles were launched, there were threats of expropriation, or more benignly, nationalisation of the mobile network business, and mutterings about taking this ANC government all the way to the Constitutional Court to protect the due process of law making and the preservation of private-sector financial investments.
But the hullabaloo around contentious aspects of the White Paper has had some effect. The Minister’s agreement last week to some of the recommendations of the ICT stakeholders, including mobile network operators, must be clearly documented as policy amendments – which is what they are – despite the Minister’s spin of ‘flexibility in implementation’.
All of this angst could have been avoided if the Department’s true focus was on a credible process of delivery of ubiquitous, affordable, robust broadband access for all. Instead, we were presented with a suspiciously spawned network idea that smelled of connected cronies making a grab for other people’s businesses in the guise of radically upending the ICT sector to transform it.
What ICASA saw a long year ago was a policy idea that would introduce a wholesale network monopoly that would inhibit investment in the sector and keep costs high through lack of competition.
The way this ANC government ambushed the ICT sector with a drastic plan that would crush, arguably, the most dynamic and successful economic sector since our democratic dawn, is shocking.
The deluge of critical opinion on the details of the network and the Policy White Paper came from many sources: specialist IT lawyers, business leaders in the sector, academics.
The outcry forced the Minister to encourage informal talks with the sector to get its views on how to ‘implement’ the policy. He was adamant there would be no changes to the policy.
The concessions he has agreed with the core of stakeholders involves allowing the mobile network operators to retain the spectrum they currently use to service their customer bases, as well as access to ‘sufficient’ high-demand spectrum. This will enable them to run in parallel to the Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN) while committing to be its significant customers.
There’s a legal and operational minefield to traverse here as the WOAN will depend on a share of the operators’ business to survive, and its assigned spectrum might not always be appropriate to the demands of the operators’ customers.
Also, the operators are being asked to commit, now, to using 51% of a network that, even with optimum efficiency, will take at least six years to build. Who knows what the market and the economy will look like in 2022.
We await the written details of the way forward with the new network plan. It must be implemented in a phased approach to test its objectives and refine its implementation.
The plan must be underpinned by thorough, credible research, on the financial, economic and social impacts. It cannot be another shoddy, tick-box job that the Minister reluctantly put out earlier this year to extol the virtues of his policy.
But the promise of open access wireless network is years away. Its birth is hampered by another spectacular ANC government failure: the migration to digital broadcasting that will free up the spectrum needed for the wireless broadband delivery of a vast array of content, applications and services.
This migration is bogged down in the courts thanks to a suspect policy amendment made by Minister Muthambi. The new Minister of Communications indicates that a reversal of this policy is pending.
But this is only the first step in breaking the logjam. There is the seemingly corrupt procurement process for the production of government-sponsored set-top boxes. The process needs to be revised.
Another failure of this ANC government in delivering affordable internet throughout the country is South Africa Connect. The tender to find a lead agency to manage this ambitious project failed last year.
Had the Minister taken the advice of the National Broadband Advisory Council, rather than snubbing it into oblivion, they would have steered him clear of the ‘lead agency’ mistake. Phase 1, announced in SONA 2015, would be well on its way by now.
Despite its mantra of bringing down the cost to communicate and spreading internet connectivity to the farthest and poorest regions of our land, this department is treading water.
Its delivery is weighed down by misguided ANC policies, its hoarding of spectrum, its actions without consideration of consequences and its determination to centralise and control this most dynamic, innovative and fast-paced economic sector.
It creates one talk shop after another to pretend it is listening to the ICT sector players. They’re becoming conference groupies, both here and abroad.
It dreams up policies to create more bureaucracy and establishes boards for connected cronies at the expense of the taxpayers. All of which pushes up costs which taxpayers fund.
The Department has neither the budget nor the resources to deliver on the legislative mandate it has foisted on itself for the next three years.
They should instead focus their energies on key deliverables, such as facilitating and incentivising the investment and rollout of fixed and wireless broadband internet. The Western Cape government gave them a presentation last week on best practice in this field.
Its main messages are: one size doesn’t fit all; devolve responsibility locally; seek innovative solutions relevant to the circumstances and preferably with local providers who are managed to deliver on standards and to deadlines.
This is what a DA-led government does to deliver connectivity. We’ve already proved this where we govern.