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Spectrum at last - and the strange beast that is the So...

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Spectrum at last – and the strange beast that is the South African civil service

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

The most important thing about this month’s spectrum auction is that it happened. It was originally planned for 2016, but corruption and incompetence delayed it.

A series of bungling communications ministers, especially Faith Muthambi, derailed a process that should have been completed long ago. The South African cellular industry hasn’t been able to license new spectrum since 2004 – or for 18 years.

To say the communications department has been misdirected is an understatement.

Part of the problem has been the releasing of the 700MHz and 800MHz frequencies used by the SABC and e.tv for old-fashioned analogue television signals. The deadline to switch off the TV signal and free up the spectrum, known as the digital dividend for its value to cellular operators, was July 2015.

Apart from the good news that the auction happened, it also raised R14.4-billion for the government’s coffers. Additionally, the government has thankfully dropped its ludicrous plans to require mobile operators to participate in a brain-dead scheme to provide a wholesale open-access network. That was years of pointless debate and pushback from an industry that could already see the train wreck approaching. This was even before the only country that tried to implement it – Mexico – discovered what a disaster such a foolish idea was.

It’s unfortunately not the only problem that the government failed to foresee – in spite of innumerable warnings. Despite the long deadline to supply terrestrial TV users with devices that can pick up the digital signal and convert it for use by older televisions, it has utterly failed to do so.

The poorest of the poor in rural South Africa are the ones who are paying for Muthambi et al’s treasonous attempts to subvert a tender for the Guptas.

In the end, according to a statement by the jubilant Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (Icasa), a whopping R14.4-billion was raised for the “national fiscus” – which I think is fancy economist terminology for “the ANC will find a way to loot it”. The two biggest operators, Vodacom and MTN, spent R5.4-billion and R5.2-billion respectively on spectrum; whereas Telkom paid R2.2-billion; data-only Rain R1.4-billion; Cell C R288.2-million; and Liquid Intelligent Technologies R111-million.

“History has been made this morning,” Icasa chairman Keabetswe Modimoeng said after the first round, which raised R8-billion. “We are highly grateful to the participants during this phase [of the auction].”

Indeed, just by taking place we managed to avoid an entire generation (considered to be 20 years) from passing before we licensed spectrum again. It’s bad enough that it was 18 years since the last auction – for 3G, nogal. And #PresidunceZuma’s defenders still want to argue about whether they were truly “nine wasted years”. Meanwhile, the Icasa press release takes a weird turn at the end. The authority appears to have fallen into the same morass of self-congratulation as all government departments and state-owned entities, because the statement devoted two of its 10 paragraphs to congratulating Icasa staff for, well, doing their jobs.

“The chairperson further thanks all members of the Icasa staff who were actively involved in this process for their stamina and commitment to ensuring that this licensing process completes successfully,” it read, before quoting Modimoeng: “These members of our staff did this for the country, and they must be hailed for the successful conclusion thereof. We look forward to all South Africans benefiting from the dividends of these regulatory interventions, and to seeing the proceeds of the auction being put to good use for the benefit of all South Africans.”

Who issues a press release devoting 20% to praising civil servants for doing the jobs they’re paid to do? But it tells an observant watcher something about the strange beast that is the South African civil service, which accounts for 34% of the entire national budget. These mere 1.2 million people – of an estimated 60 million population – consume a third of the total amount of money that is the entire “national fiscus”.

I was struck by Modimoeng’s use of the phrases “all South Africans benefiting” and “put [it] to good use for the benefit of all South Africans”. By the warped logic of SA’s bloated public servants’ paycheque, a third of that R14.4-billion – or R4.8-billion – goes directly to just 1.2 million of us.

It might not sting as much if they were doing their jobs, let alone any expectation they might do it with enthusiasm and respect for their fellow citizens, stuck in endless queues to access basic government services. I doubt they will herald this R14.4-billion as a “dividend” that they will benefit from at all. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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    • Seriously Craig, I would think that we would be looking at what we gain from this – networks and the people, and hopefully from what we can save from the R14b before it “leaks” from the trough. While not excusing any rates they have historically set, they have also delivered way beyond wha there constraints should have prevented. Lets not forget the capacity constraints imposed, and the workarounds/network sharing/extension of life/duct-tape and cable-tie solutions that have been forced on the networks. These have been unsustainable and have become incapacitating in some ways, and then we have the ongoing expectations of world class 4G/5G services on a groaning 3G (mostly) network infrastructure. Ridiculous maybe on our part? The fact that they can carry the number of customers, and still deliver at all (mostly with good technical quality) is commendable. I am not a Telco evangelist at all – having been involved for 25+ years there are warts, and I have and have had numerous problems, complaints and issues. But they have squeezed everything out of networks that have not been given the access required to deliver the service we demand. So yes, they have been expensive, but they have also overdelivered on what they have been constrained to use. And now, they need to start correcting these things, as they have what they have asked for.

  • ICASA is just another example of a failed government institution not doing its job… There is another one – which very few citizens are aware of – that is is totally inept and incompetent: The National Regulator of Compulsory Standards, or NRCS, which is supposed to “police” or “regulate” important specifications drafted by SANS, amongst other, The Legal Metrology Act, Act No. 9 of 2014 (LMA).
    This Act determines the instrumentation and methodologies that determine the accuracies of virtually everything the consumer and industrial industry buys and sells whether it is by mass or volume. I have personally witnessed how this industry has been ripped apart and away from a reasonably controlled – and by no means perfect – institution which was governed by SABS0259 in the 80’s to a complete mess due to irresponsible, non-sensible, non-sustainable regulations that are supposed to be policed by no more than 5 x competent verification officers in the whole country. The industry is supposed to be self-regulating, but the constant irrational changes in the regulations by the NRCS – which are not explained to the public nor published properly – are simply unsustainable, resulting in the Metrology Act to be wide open for abuse and corruption.
    And since the confusion suits the Industry, nobody seems to have the willpower nor ethic morality to challenge it.

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