Opinionista Marian Shinn 27 February 2018

Mobile Mayhem looms with network plan

The hypnotic buffering wheel on mobile device screens could be the most watched entertainment if pending legislation throws South Africa’s dynamic cellphone sector into reverse gear.

Should the monopoly wireless network that is the cornerstone of the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill be implemented, the quality and access to our mobile experience will be severely compromised.

Investment in infrastructure will dry up, the high-demand spectrum will probably remain unassigned for a decade, and data-hungry applications such as gaming, video, and Fourth Industrial Revolution applications will jostle with cloud-computing for limited space on the spectrum that is now available.

Economic growth will be negatively impacted as we struggle to communicate in an interconnected world. Jobs will be lost and the digital divide separating rural and marginalised communities from the rest of society will become a fathomless chasm, prompting social unrest.

Much of the supporting research for this dystopian outcome is likely to be found in the 43 submissions made to the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) by January 31, 2018.

The best thing President Cyril Ramaphosa and his new Cabinet can do when this Bill is placed before them, probably at the end of March, is to bin it, along with its supporting National Integrated Information Communications Technology (ICT) Policy White Paper.

The Bill seeks, in the main, to introduce more competition and infrastructure sharing between mobile networks on a wholesale level, lower data costs, widen network reach to include marginalised communities, create opportunities for new and smaller players and less bureaucracy in the network build process.

These are noble but elusive aims, whose achievement is long overdue.

They can be realised by properly financing and skilling the Competition Commission and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). With the existing laws that empower these entities, plus some amendments that can be sourced from this Bill, these aims can be achieved.

President Ramaphosa hinted pointedly in his State of the Nation Address that a pending auction for high-demand spectrum should proceed without undue delay. First, however, the court challenge Minister Siyabonga Cwele brought against ICASA in 2016 must be withdrawn.

Second, the auction must urgently proceed after adjustments to the original terms, to make it more affordable so smaller players can compete, and to formalise reasonable compromises along lines proposed by the existing mobile operators a year ago.

If President Ramaphosa doesn’t stop this Bill, and it is passed by an ANC majority, its next stop will be the Constitutional Court on grounds of expropriation of property and business rights of the Mobile Network Operators and their investors. The Bill can also legally be challenged based on its irregular processing.

The red flag is Chapter 3A of the Bill, which introduces a monopolistic national wholesale Wireless Open Access Network. South African mobile device users seeking basic internet access would have no choice but to become dependent on an untested monopoly network which would be unlikely to deliver fast, high-quality, world-class service.

Without controlling the R97-billion mobile infrastructure created by Vodacom and MTN over the past 11 years, the Wireless Open Access Network cannot operate. Spectrum, without access to the infrastructure to dispense it, has no value. And a wireless communications infrastructure without spectrum has no service to sell.

To force Vodacom and MTN to “share” their infrastructure on a cost-recovery basis, the pending Bill would assign most of the high-demand spectrum to the Wireless Open Access Network. They would also be required to return the spectrum on which they currently operate.

Together with four other mobile operators, the major mobile network operators last year presented to the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services specific, well-developed compromise options that would enable them to run private networks in parallel with a non-monopoly Wireless Open Access Network, broadly along the lines of a national project currently under development in Mexico.

These four operators – Telkom, Cell C, Liquid Telecom and Rain – run their businesses (in whole or in part) based on wholesale access to the MTN and Vodacom networks.

A contact of mine, who has hands-on experience with the non-monopolistic Mexican Wireless Open Access Network project, says it would take at least 10 years to determine how a South African version of a wholesale wireless network might be structured, operate, or acquire communications infrastructure and the necessary funding, before it could be established on a coherent legal basis and then become operational. Our economy doesn’t have that kind of time for our mobile internet to get up to speed with the rest of the world.

Depending on how it might be implemented during a transitional period, the pending South African monopoly Wireless Open Access Network would – at best – mean customers would have to watch the buffering wheel churn as they try to access their data over increasingly crowded spectrum bands.

Should an ill-thought-through Wireless Open Access Network monopoly be established precipitously, by fiat, the robustness and reliability of mobile communications would each be undermined systematically. A generic absence of wholesale network competition would inevitably lull its management into complacency, leading to poor service levels and increasing obsolescence of its infrastructure. Without a competitive market motivation, investment in new and innovative infrastructure would be minimal.

Without a fall-back network to pick up the traffic, if a monopoly Wireless Open Access Network network goes down, there would be no competing network to piggy-back on until service is restored. An irate mob of over 37-million South African mobile customers would not be a pretty sight.

A monopoly Wireless Open Access Network operating under a cost-based pricing regime would not attract investment to expand into under-serviced areas, let alone maintain urban best standards.

South Africans cannot afford to have this ham-fisted monopoly mobile network idea stymie our entire ICT sector. Far more nimble and effective solutions, geared to improving sector competition, are on offer, such as strengthening ICASA and the Competition Commission.

At a time of economic desperation, this altogether reckless Bill promises to cripple South Africa’s entire mobile communications sector. Let us be clear: such a result would excommunicate all South Africans from the global digital age. DM

Marian Shinn MP is Shadow Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services

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