30 March 2017
The ICT* Policy White Paper has met with widespread industry concern. Yet the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) is pressing ahead with implementation without due regard to public consultation and its own review committee’s recommendations. The rationale behind this steamroller approach is mystifying.
*Information and Communications Technology
In March 2015, tasked with drafting the policy, the ICT review panel crafted the Review Report, the precursor to the final document – the Policy White Paper. The committee did its job well and put forward recommendations, which had broad industry consensus on the general way forward.
In the final Policy White Paper released in October 2016, many of these proposals had disappeared, good intentions were disregarded and in particular, three radical ideas – Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN), spectrum non-renewal and cost-based pricing – were introduced for the first time. Not only were industry players taken by surprise, so also were many of the panel members who, it is understood, had first sight of these only the night before the Policy was published.
The Review Report recommended that any intervention must be necessary for achieving public interest objectives of affordability, accessibility, and availability (the so-called “three pillars” of universal access). Also, that such interventions must be “proportionate, consistent and evidence-based and determined through public consultation”.
The White Paper’s three most controversial provisions run counter to these requirements and public interest objectives were already being served by a healthy competitive industry delivering more affordable access to poor people every year.
Critically, the late appearance of the now disparaged Socio Economic Impact Assessment makes a mockery of the policy being “evidence-based and determined through public consultation”. The SEIA appeared only after the DTPS had declared the policy to be final and thus directly violated the requirement for public consultation.
Three controversial policies of WOAN, return of spectrum, and cost-based pricing are extreme interventions and violations of this principle and, without a proper SEIA, cannot be said to be in the public interest. The SEIA barely deals with this far-reaching policy and does not consider the regulatory impact, which the review panel said should be assessed and considered before imposing regulations, rules and/or conditions.
The Review Report did suggest the introduction of a Wireless Open Access Network, but did not recommend a monopoly structure, which appears to be the intention of the White Paper. However, because clarity in this and other key areas is lacking, we cannot be sure.
At no point in the Review Report was there a suggestion of taking back already allocated spectrum from network operators or that this expropriated spectrum be exclusively assigned to the WOAN. Again, we cannot be sure because of the lack of clear intention. The Report also directed that “competitive bidding” be used for assigning spectrum which is completely at odds with the White Paper that states that competitive bidding or auctions do not uphold “the principles of openness and transparency” and do not “address the fundamental market problems of ineffective competition, infrastructure sharing bottlenecks, duplication of infrastructure and inefficient use of scarce resources”. In effect, the White Paper says that the regulator – no longer independent but reporting to the DTPS – will somehow be more able to allocate scarce resources than the open competitive market. This is pure ideology and poses a danger to one of South Africa’s post-apartheid success stories.
Although the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services conducted several engagements, these were not on policy, but only on implementation of policy. The Minister and his spokesperson are on record that the White Paper is final. No proper consultation on policy was undertaken.
Evidence based policy development is further undermined by using examples of the very few international models of a WOAN which have all produced mixed, mostly negative, results. Despite the White Paper acknowledging this, the DTPS is forging ahead with implementation for no rational reason.
The Review Report says that the regulator should be free to make decisions without political interference. Yet, when ICASA proposed to assign spectrum by auction last year, the Minister directly intervened to halt the process via the courts thus causing an indefinite delay to an essential process.
The review panel proposed that the regulator must adopt the principle of least intrusive mechanism for achieving public interest goals, and that self-regulation must also be preferred where appropriate.
That the White Paper directly contravenes the Review Report developed by the panel committee tasked with policy development is baffling and disturbing. There are too many unanswered questions. This policy should be sent back for proper public participation and review.