Close ICASA and create a digital regulator, says Ngcaba

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 24 Jun 2020
Convergence Partners chairman and commissioner on the Presidential Commission on 4IR, Andile Ngcaba. (Photo source: ITU)
Convergence Partners chairman and commissioner on the Presidential Commission on 4IR, Andile Ngcaba. (Photo source: ITU)

The law that empowers the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is “outdated” and not something that can drive the country’s digital transformation.

This is the view of Dr Andile Ngcaba, founding partner and chairman of Convergence Partners, and commissioner on the Presidential Commission on 4IR, noting the law dates back to 2002.

Ngcaba was participating in a virtual roundtable on digital infrastructure at yesterday’s inaugural Sustainable Infrastructure Development Symposium of South Africa. He was joined by communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and former Telkom chief commercial officer Dr Brian Armstrong, among others.

His comments come amid mooted changes for the telecoms regulator, wherein it may cease to exist in its current form. Last December, Ndabeni-Abrahams announced plans to merge ICASA, the Film and Publication Board and .ZADNA, to establish a single regulator.

“I think, minister, if I was in your shoes, I would close down ICASA and start a new digital regulator. I would ask everybody to go home, and try and basically do away with the law,” said Ngcaba. “I would honestly say close this organisation, let everybody go and reskill, and write a new digital regulator for the country.”

A former director-general in the communications department, Ngcaba is among the people that authored the legislatives currently in place, which set out how regulatory frameworks must be done.

He told his fellow panellists that digital transformation requires extremely bold decisions.

“Even if you do them [bold decisions] in an enterprise, there will be those people who don't want to change, who want to keep the old way of doing things. What do you do with an organisation when you want to change and create a digital bank, a digital company or an e-commerce company? You actually have to do something quite drastic.

“If you're going to do something cosmetic, it's not going to change. When we changed the laws in the early 90s between 1994 to 2002, we had to change laws which were apartheid laws, but not only that they were apartheid laws, they were old analogue and digital laws. These laws have been running for over 20 years. I really think, unless we take a very bold decision on these issues, we will really not go anywhere.

“Close the regulator, start a new body and create a digital regulator in the country with skills of people who are going to be enablers not regulators, or a process that is going to take nine months. These processes that take nine months, we legislated them in 1994. It’s 2020, we cannot apply these laws and regulations, they cannot work, and they’re not going to take us anywhere.”

Policy overhaul

Commenting on her vision for future policy, Ndabeni-Abrahams said government needs to be agile and create responsive policies.

She explained that one of government’s past challenges is that the policies were mainly inward-looking, which is why the stance to now look at what is needed for the country, who needs to do what and what kind of policies need to be produced.

“We really need to have a complete overhaul of the legislations that we have and the regulation. As much as people think when you talk about this it’s because you want to occupy space, but it is the reality.”

Responding to a question as to when she envisages these regulatory changes to come into effect, the minister didn’t give specific timeframes, only stating: “We are hopeful to get buy-in on everything that's contained in the Presidential commission report where we’ll be able to get people to understand there's a need for us to review the law-making process.

“In this era that we're in, what kind of law-maker do we require? The one that must appreciate the environment that we're operating in and the same applies to the regulator.

“We have to have regulators that understand the Internet is the driver of things and everything that is happening. Therefore, they have to understand the socio-economic impact of the Internet, so when they regulate, they do not prohibit innovation. They do not issue the regulations two years later and it’s no longer relevant.” 

Minister of communications and digital technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. (Photo source: Twitter)
Minister of communications and digital technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. (Photo source: Twitter)

Free spectrum for all

While government is looking to auction off the high-demand spectrum to raise funds to add to the fiscus, Ngcaba said spectrum should be given free of charge to people to address that digital divide.

“South Africans have capability and have knowledge; we really need to move away from this way of looking at digital as if it is spectrum, and digital is not spectrum.

“The issue of auction, minister, in my view, is honestly a waste of time and money for the state. Rather, put serious obligations to those who are given spectrum to do what is right for the country in terms of taking us to that digital society. Taking money − two or three billion − to put in the fiscus is not going to make any change. I really think that we need to make bold decisions as a country when it comes to digital.

“Mobile communications has a location-based environment, which makes it very rigid to operate. As a country, we cannot define our strategy based on spectrum and mobile. If we want to build a digital strategy, we have to think about ourselves becoming a global country, whereby we’ll basically provide services to seven billion people in the world.”

Cloud revolution

Ngcaba emphasised that South Africa needs to develop strategies to bring more cloud providers into the country, to become a central hub of cloud computing.

South Africa has been witnessing increased activity in the cloud space, with multinationals opening data centre facilities locally.

Last year saw US-based software giant Microsoft open two data centre regions in SA, becoming the first global provider to deliver cloud services from data centres on the African continent. Amazon Web Services opened its data centre region in Cape Town in April this year. Other cloud players expected to launch data centres this year include Oracle and Norwegian-based Web company Opera.

Although he acknowledged all the cloud activity already happening in the country, Ngcaba believes this model needs to be accelerated.

“Open source is key; without open source, there is no future. As an industry, we are busy with all the conversations among ourselves, not just in South Africa but the continent, to be able to drive open source. We are fortunate of the fact that Ubuntu, as one of the largest open source platforms, is born out of this country.

“We are sitting in a sweet spot where we sit today as a country, to lead the continent in the digital revolution, and all the building blocks are there.”