The Wireless Application Service Providers' Association (WASPA), South Africa's representative body for mobile value-added service providers, has celebrated its fifth anniversary, with membership having grown from 31 WASPS in 2004 to 221 in 2009 – representing an almost R3-billion industry.
WASPA has also successfully handled 18 350 complaints and queries from mobile consumers since 2005. The majority range from stop requests and information requests to a minority of serious contraventions of WASPA's Code of Conduct.
Leon Perlman, founding and current chairman of WASPA, says the association has come a long way since its launch in 2004. Based on its development of sound business practices and robust consumer protection measures, WASPA's constitution, processes and operational structures are being adopted by similar bodies around the continent, including Uganda, Namibia, Tanzania, and Madagascar.
WASPs provide a number of value-added mobile services, such as SMS voting for TV shows, competitions, interactive mobile games, ringtones, interactive dating services, banking and credit card notifications, and general subscriptions.
"The mobile value-added services industry has changed dramatically over the past few years," he says. "When we first started in 2004 it was an almost R800-million industry where almost 100% of the mobile value-added services were non-subscription based. It has now morphed into an almost R3-billion industry, where once-off, or 'a la carte', payment services now only account for 15% of the industry," he says.
About 85% of the WASP market is now based on subscription services, where users are charged daily, weekly or monthly for services.
WASPA has had to adapt to these new market conditions, and is constantly evolving.
"The association has evolved from a simple idea in 2003 into the world-class organisation it is today, with support from all three major mobile operators in South Africa," he says. Its is also now a leading member of IARN, the international association that regulates WASPs around the world. Perlman is also current chairman of IARN, and WASPA will host the bi-annual IARN members conference in Cape Town in December 2009.
Perlman says some of the key milestones WASPA achieved in such a short period of time were the establishment of its Code of Conduct which manages the huge industry growth through sound business and consumer protection rules, international recognition, as well as recognition by the government as a robust organisation they can trust and consult with.
It also works closely with similar bodies in South Africa such as the Advertising Standards Authortity, ICASA, the Lotteries Board, as well as the Mobile Networks Operators and TV stations.
Perlman says WASPA, in its dual capacity as industry promoter and de facto industry regulator serves as an industry representative body, or IRB, as contemplated under Chapter 11 of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002. This Act gives WASPs certain rights in terms of service provider liability. WASPA intends applying to government for official recognition under the Act as an IRB so as to obtain these protections for its members.
In addition to a number of sub-committees, WASPA has a secretariat and dedicated team that handles consumer complaints efficiently and quickly in terms of its enforced Code of Conduct. It also employs a pool of 10 technology lawyers who adjudicate in terms of the WASPA Code of Conduct. WASPA has successfully handled more than 18 000 complaints and queries from mobile consumers since 2005, and has issued fines and suspensions in terms of the Code.
"While we have had to put quite strict measures in place in the past to regulate WASP services, it is for the benefit of consumers and the industry as a whole. WASPA today plays a critical role in the telecoms industry, and I believe without it, it the industry as well as consumers would not have had the robust protections and growth they have now," he says.
In its role as industry promoter, WASPA has also organised WASP representation at international trade shows, as well as linking local WASPs with opportunities from international players. A number of local WASPs have opened offices around the world, and many now provide local support to international WASPs.
Perlman indicates that WASPA's goal from its inception was to instill a degree of trust in consumers that mobile phones are legitimate payment devices, not only to do pay for ringtone-type micro payments, but also for larger-value macro payments for non-digital goods.
"The industry is moving towards true mobile commerce. Locally, the first iteration of mobile payments was through premium-rated services. That market has now matured, as they are all around the world and we are now seeing the move to a separate 'mobile purse' to pay for high value services and goods," he says.
"With general communications costs coming down, consumers will have more money to spend on value added services. Mobile phones are also becoming premier payment tools, not just for digital goods, but for buying conventional items such as plane tickets and restaurants," he says.
Looking to the future, Perlman says WASPA will continue to enforce rules to protect consumers and to ensure that there is a level playing field for all in the industry, as well as play a promotional role in promoting the adoption thereof.
"WASPA certainly needs to look at the mobile landscape as it all unfolds, and possibly change its rules around and fine-tune its structures, if necessary, to adapt and change along with the industry."