ICASA chairman's 'uninspiring' tenure ends

Bonnie Tubbs
By Bonnie Tubbs, ITWeb telecoms editor.
Johannesburg, 30 Jun 2015
ICASA chairman for the past five years, Steven Mncube, leaves the regulator at the end of today, with a lengthy "still to do" list behind him.
ICASA chairman for the past five years, Steven Mncube, leaves the regulator at the end of today, with a lengthy "still to do" list behind him.

As the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) bids farewell to its chairman of five years, Stephen Mncube leaves a legacy of unfinished projects.

As Mncube, who took the reins at age 69, leaves, strong leadership is urgently needed - but controversial candidates may mean delays.

When Mncube joined, it was a time when, in his own words, ICASA faced "daunting challenges" and had an extensive to-do list that contained some highly critical tasks for SA's ICT sector - a list industry watchers say has since barely shrunk.

Instead, Mncube's five-year tenure yielded little beyond a reduction in termination rates and an increase in licensed TV providers, say analysts - despite the direction and execution the industry has long been calling for.

What the historically cash-strapped and under-resourced regulator now needs, says ICT expert Adrian Schofield, is a strong leader, supported by able councillors and an effective executive. "We need to regain the lost momentum of the last decade or more."

But allegations of government interference and a controversial councillor election process have left a dark cloud over the regulator's council.

And, while Mncube immediately replaced his predecessor Paris Mashile in 2010, there is no indication a successor to Mncube is in the wings. ICASA says the process for the appointment of a new chairman is governed by legislation, in terms of which communications minister Faith Muthambi would have the final pick of the names of councillors recommended by the National Assembly.

Last week, the process of appointment of new ICASA councillors, which had reached the final stages, was put on ice after concerns around two of the recommended councillors' chequered pasts were raised and the National Assembly halted a report recommending eight candidates.

Apathetic esteem

Meanwhile, Mncube's five-year tenure has been neither lauded nor slammed, but rather has received an apathetic response from the industry.

Schofield, who has known Mncube since 1999 - when he worked with the outgoing chairman to form Information Industry SA - says he found Mncube to be likeable and thoughtful, but lacking in dynamism.

While Mncube did nothing to "rock the boat" while serving as ICASA chairman, says Schofield, he was not the strong advocate ICASA needed - and still needs - to be effective in applying the regulations that support SA's desperate need for affordable access to ICT.

"One can argue that all of the interminable delays and false starts cannot be laid at the ICASA chairman's door, but there is no doubt the opportunity to pressurise the political leadership of [telecoms ministries] and other bodies was missed."

Democratic Alliance shadow minister of telecoms and postal services Marian Shinn declined to comment specifically on Mncube's tenure, saying only she wished him well on his retirement.

"I hope his successor will embrace the role with rigorous independence of government and the commercial sector, and be laser-focused on making the sector more competitive, consumer-friendly, and the products and services more affordable."

ICASA has not released a statement on Mncube's exit.

Undone list

When Mncube was appointed to the post of chairman in 2010, there were arguably some failures that could be associated with him - including the ill-fated National Information Technology Forum and government's then "trouble child" Sentech - but a good reputation preceded him.

On the other hand, some said they did not see ICASA's fate improving with Mncube as chairperson.

In the "Vision of ICASA chairperson", published on ICASA's Web site, Mncube noted the following as key projects:

Lowering the cost of communications in SA by ICASA finalising the following projects:

1. Call termination regulations
2. Facilities leasing regulations
3. Review of handset subsidy regulations
4. Carrier pre-selection
5. Local loop unbundling regulations

In terms of increasing competition in the provision of services, said Mncube, the authority was finalising the following:

1. Licensing of digital terrestrial TV
2. Licensing of mobile TV
3. Licensing of additional commercial radio stations
4. Reviewing numbering regulations
5. Invitation to apply for licensing high-demand bands to be re-issued

In terms of promoting universal service and access, he said ICASA was finalising the following:

1. Review of e-rate regulations to benefit education and give health institutions access to affordable bandwidth
2. Universal service and access regulations
3. Review of band plan
4. Digital dividend

And, finally, in terms of creating "regulatory certainty", ICASA was finalising the following, he said:

1. Regulatory framework for financial reporting
2. Spectrum coordination licensing regime
3. Assignment policies and procedures

Schofield notes, in five years, very little of this vision was accomplished. "There has been a reduction in termination rates and an increase in licensed TV providers. What else? Not so much of the agenda he set out in 2010.

"We have seen a dramatic increase in demand for data services and the failure to access broadband spectrum is severely restricting SA's economic growth. The problems arising from Muthambi's interference in the appointment of councillors has to be constraining ICASA's capacity to function properly and the chairman must share responsibility for that."