Yesterday our communications regulator ICASA sent out a press release that announced its intentions to launch a new “high level” inquiry into the ICT sector. This morning at a press briefing at the ICASA offices the plans for the inquiry which is essentially a large fact-finding mission that ICASA will be using to help it make better informed decisions in the future.

ICASA Councillor Marcia Socikwa said that the regulator was operating in an “acute space of information”, which essentially means that they haven’t been provided with enough information to effectively make the decisions around controversial issues like that of spectrum allocation.

The whole process should take around six to eight months to complete and hopefully will ensure that South Africans will have an industry regulator who can make better decisions around targets like universal access to broadband by 2020. The inquiry is unfortunately won’t result in any direct rulings that could push the industry forward, however things like anti-competitive cases could result from the findings later on.

Scope

The official scope of the inquiry has five areas but ICASA Councillor Willie Currie was quick to point out that they are not the only areas available for consultation:

The inquiry will seek to address the following issues:

  • The current state of competition in the ICT sector as a whole
  • Challenges to creating a level playing field across all platforms
  • The impact of convergence, net neutrality and disruptive technologies on the competitive landscape
  • The role of fixed (fibre) and wireless (high demand spectrum) in enabling competition
  • The tension between consolidation and plurality in the ICT sector

Competition

According to ICASA one of the main aspects that has driven the need for the enquiry is the potential consolidation of the market with Vodacom’s proposed acquisition of Neotel and a rumoured MTN and Telkom Mobile merger that would see the two largest mobile players, with an 80% market share between them, wield even more power.

Councillor Curry stated on more than one occasion during the press briefing that ICASA is comitted to a pro-competitive environment and that it will seek to maintain that environment.

Spectrum

ICASA has taken fire from almost everyone in the telecoms space around the delay in issuing the digital dividend spectrum that will come after South Africa moves away from analogue television broadcasts. However the issue may not be as cut-and-dry as most would have you believe, well according to ICASA that is.

It poses questions about whether the spectrum, which is perfect for the rollout of LTE services go to Vodacom, MTN and even Cell C, or should other players have a chance to use it even though it would take them longer to utilise it which could hamper South Africans in the long run?

Should broadcasters like the SABC and Multichoice pay the same licencing fees as telecoms operators considering the fact they use similar spectrum at the moment which they don’t have to pay for?

Net neutrality

The issue of net neutrality will also be looked at from all angles with a vastly differing set of goals from the telecoms and broadcasting industries to what consumers in South Africa want.

The example of WhatsApp undermining the revenue of telecoms companies by almost eliminating the cost of messaging and a potential cost in revenue losses should WhatsApp decide to add in voice call functionality similar to that of BBM Voice into its messaging app are on one side, however for consumers, only having to pay one cost to your provider for data, which would then be used for everything is an attractive idea.

Similarly, video on demand services like Netflix could come to dominate the subscription TV market in the same way that it has in the  but bandwidth restriction as well as the poor quality of download speeds have held back most South Africans from even being able to consider it as an alternative.

Written submissions

Once the document is published in the Government Gazette any interested parties will be able to make a written submission within 60 days to ICASA.