By Kathy Gibson, Satnac 2013, Stellenbosch – As South Africa gears up to become a network knowledge economy, the requirement for broadband is growing, along with the need for better policies in the industry.

According to Luci Abrahams, director of the Link centre at the University of the Witwatersrand, who chaired a panel on regulatory issues at today’s Satnac conference in Stellenbosch.

“So if we building a digital services economy, what grounding do we have?” she asks, adding that there is little legislative support for ICT.

Abrahams stresses that there is a need for strong regulator to foster a ubiquitous broadband landscape, and this have been demonstrated in countries that have experienced a successful broadband rollout.

While the law provides a framework, she points out that the regulator needs to provide day-to-day guidance on their implementation.

Dr Tracy Cohen, chief corporate services officer at Neotel and a former ICASA councillor, points out that in the last few years there have been numerous changes in ministers, directors-general, laws and regulations.
“We’ve had a lot of flux, and not a lot of stability,” she says. “We have never really resolved spectrum policy – despite eight instances of policy proposals. And universal service, that process has never closed.

“These two examples illustrate to me that we need to do something different. What we are doing is not working in the policies and regulations space. What we are doing needs to change and change dramatically.”

Mothiba Ramusi, executive head: regulatory affairs at Cell C, comments that one of his deliverables is to deliver returns for shareholders. “We need to make sure we have a regulator that clears the pathway to make sure government vision is attained.

“We know broadband is a contributor to bring communities into the world – there are many benefits especially for rural people. From a regulatory perspective is that we need a regulator that has a pre-planning mind and come up with better ways of seamlessly connecting communities.”

Richard Majoor, corporate strategy at Telkom SA, says South Africa may have suffered in the past from a common definition of the problem. “It’s difficult to have a discussion where we can’t agree on the facts.
Fundamental questions need to be answered so we can move beyond dialogue to implementation.”

He says it’s important to agree on a common view of the industry. “Then the regulator should adopt an approach of ‘first do no harm’, and to quantify costs and benefits. Talkom has gone to Europe and seen how the European parliament interfaces with regulators, they first look at all the views plus costs and benefits. With time when you take a regulatory impact assessment on board it helps to speed decisions.”

A question has been raised about the independence of the South African regulator, and whether government and industry frequently hamstrings ICASA.
“There is lack of clarity between the policy maker and regulator,” Abrahams says. However, the policy maker is not able to stop the regulator, according to the Constitution. We shouldn’t become too worked up about independence,” says Cohen. “It’s rather about the structure. The issue is about how we structure the regulator.

“I think we need to do things differently. When ICASA was set up it came from different worlds. This needs to be debated, around reforming the institution.”

To conclude, Majoor says there is scope for improvement in the regulatory environment.

“What often goes unsaid is the role of the private sector and their investment in the industry. It would help if this was more transparency. We need to know about investives, about enablers like spectrum. We also need support, removing bottlenecks. This industry contributes R2-billion a year to the national treasury, and that money is not being returned to the industry. Perhaps we need to look at this investment and the flow of money to sustain the industry.”

Cohen adds that the role of state owned companies competing with the private sector needs to be addressed.

In addition, there is more legislation and policy coming down the line. “At some point we need to streamline them so we have one line of sight.”

Ramusi agrees that it’s clear we need a national plan, as well as working solutions and an environment that encourages partnerships.

“Of primary importance is the issue of cost, and the regulator needs to address these.”