Telecoms bill: Cwele promises to listen to industry

Telecoms minister Siyabonga Cwele. Image c/o World Economic Forum

Telecommunications & postal service minister Siyabonga Cwele has promised to listen to the industry’s complaints about the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill and will delay the publication of the next draft until August while it is redrafted.

The news is likely to come as somewhat of a relief to the telecoms operators and industry bodies that have taken issue with various aspects of the contentious bill, though Cwele said he can’t share yet what changes are being made to the draft legislation.

“We are a little bit behind in terms of our schedule to submit it to cabinet,” the minister said in response to a question from TechCentral ahead of his department’s budget vote speech in parliament on Thursday. Cwele had hoped the amended bill would be presented to cabinet in March.

At a stakeholder workshop arranged by the telecoms department earlier this year, big operators, including Vodacom and MTN, as well as a range of industry organisations, severely criticised aspects of the bill. Cwele said on Thursday that government is taking the issues raised at the meeting “very seriously”. Department officials are “sifting through these” and “every view must first be considered”.

The minister said the intention now is to submit an amended draft bill to parliament by August. He said changes will be made that consider industry feedback and criticism, and added: “We are taking into account the economic conditions we are facing as a country, because we want to attract investment.”

Vodacom, MTN and others have said the bill in its current form will chase away investment. Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub said the draft bill is the industry’s “mining charter”, referring to government’s empowerment charter that has undermined investment in the resources sector.

Some of the issues that have industry players hot under the collar are a plan to reserve most — if not all — radio frequency spectrum that can be used for wireless broadband for an unproven wholesale open-access network (Woan) and a threat to take away the operators’ existing spectrum licences, which they have used to deploy their 2G, 3G and 4G mobile networks.

CSIR report

Cwele promised to release a report from the CSIR into how much spectrum the Woan will need and to abide by its findings. Government has been sitting on the report for months.

“I made a personal commitment that I will support whatever outcome the CSIR comes with,” Cwele told TechCentral. “All of us agreed it is an institution that is credible and has the capacity to carry out such a high-level study at short notice.”

The minister said he has taken the CSIR’s recommendations to cabinet and is “motivating” his colleagues to accept them, “or give inputs where necessary”.

“It is cabinet, ultimately, that has responsibility as the custodian of the spectrum on behalf of the people of South Africa. I don’t think cabinet will take long to process this. We must allow the cabinet processes to be concluded because we take collective decisions.”

In an possible softening of his previous stance, Cwele said it is critical to stimulate investment in the South African economy. “Spectrum,” he said, “is the oxygen for these operators. At the same time, we are very happy that they are supporting this open-access network, the Woan, because it is an instrument for those who haven’t been able to enter this market…”

The major operators have promised to buy 30% of the Woan’s capacity in return for receiving exclusive-use spectrum of their own.  — © 2018 NewsCentral Media