Cabinet reshuffle ignores the ethos of technological convergence

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The manner in which President Jacob Zuma structured his cabinet constituted a “one step forward, two steps back” analogy. This is more profound when it comes to the way he restructured the two new portfolios related to communications.

By putting telecoms and broadcasting in two distinct ministries, Zuma has ignored the ethos of technological convergence.

It seems the president’s advisors did not inform him that South Africa is one of the first countries that pioneered convergence of telecoms, broadcasting and information technology through the introduction of the White Paper on Telecommunications Policy and the White Paper on Broadcasting Policy in 1998.

The merger of the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the South African Telecommunications Regulatory Authority into the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) was driven, to a certain extent, by convergence.

In 2000, the Electronic Commerce Green Paper was introduced to promote convergence.

It is very clear that putting telecoms in the new Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, and broadcasting and Icasa in the Department of Communications do not just go against convergence, but also constitute the dislocation of Icasa, which regulates both the broadcasters and telecoms operators.

Moreover, as one of the chapter nine institutions, Icasa should not have been placed under any specific ministry. Icasa should be funded and account to the National Assembly.

By being placed under ministries, Icasa had always been a victim of political interference. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the minister has to issue a policy directive for Icasa to act and this has taken away some independence from the regulator.

In a policy announcement issued by the former minister of communications, the late Dr Ivy Matsepe Casaburri on September 2, 2004, she promised the liberalisation of the telecoms industry.

As part of determination on changes to the Telecommunications Act, the minister declared that value-added network services (Vans) would be allowed to provide their own network infrastructure from February 1, 2005.

Icasa then officially endorsed this amendment. However, a few hours before the due date, the minister changed her declaration by claiming that the self-provision would apply only to the cellphone operators and to only a few Vans.

The rest of the Vans would lease the facilities of any licenced operator as specified in the determinations. Once the minister changed her mind, Icasa did the same.

In effect, this announcement was a dent in the competition imperative because the Vans were then being compelled to buy all the network services from the same operators who were their main competitors.

In addition, the about-turn in policy created an atmosphere of uncertainty, and made it difficult to trust the telecoms policy directive in South Africa. Both the Communications Ministry and Icasa appeared to be protecting the vested interests of some established operators.

According to the Electronic Communications Act, any Vans could upgrade its licences to Individual Electronic Communications Network Service (ECNS) licences, as long as Icasa approved these. The problem was that Icasa was only prepared to approve very few applications, mentioning a plethora of reasons that amounted to the protection of vested interests.

One of the requirements laid down by Icasa was that applicants for the ECNS licences should have a black shareholding of 30 percent.

The problem with this requirement was that none of the companies that were applying had such black equity and thus Icasa would not get the competition it was seeking.

However, before Icasa could announce the winners, Altech Autopage took the matter to the Transvaal Division of the High Court.

The essence of the Communications Department and Icasa’s stance was that it would take a longer time before South African consumers could enjoy the benefits of cheaper telecoms and broadband services.

Fortunately for the consumers and corporate clients, Justice AJ Davis ruled in favour of Altech Autopage on August 29, 2008.

This case is just one example of many instances in which Icasa was dictated by politics instead of by its constitutional mandate.

For Icasa to function effectively, it has to be provided with more financial resources and account to the National Assembly, as stated earlier in this article.

In line with the ethos of convergence, Zuma should place information technology, broadcasting and telecoms under one ministry of information and communications technology (ICT).

It may be advisable for the president to reappoint the efficient Yunus Carrim to head this proposed ministry and give him some space to do his job.

It is sad to note that ICT/communications has been at the receiving end of Zuma’s endless cabinet reshuffles and thus we have had more than one ICT minister (seven, including two acting) every year since Zuma became the president in 2009.

The vacuum left by the obliteration of the Presidential International Advisory Council on Information Society and Development, which was established by the then president, Thabo Mbeki, is very apparent.

This is a clear sign that Zuma does not appreciate the socio-economic role of the ICT. But I suppose we can live in hope.

* Rabelani Dagada is a development economist based at the Wits Business School. Follow him on Twitter @Rabelani_Dagada


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