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The new, improved Icasa

Paul Vecchiatto
By Paul Vecchiatto
Cape Town, 19 Nov 2008

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) should not have bent over backwards to the minister of communications in 2004 over the infamous question of value added network services (VANS) self-provisioning, says chairman Paris Mashile.

Answering questions before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications yesterday, Mashile said that ICASA had always read the old Telecommunications Act as envisaging a time when infrastructure and services would be supplied by companies other than Telkom, or the second national operator.

“That is why ICASA initially wrote the regulations saying that VANS could self-provide (meaning that they could build their own networks),” he said.

Mashile went on to say that the minister of communications, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, had the right then, however, to approve ICASA's regulations or not, and she did not.

“The operators never took the minister on then. They could have taken the matter to court then, but they chose not to,” he said.

Mashile made the statement in answer to questions put to him by Democratic Alliance communications spokesperson Dene Smuts and African National Congress committee whip Kgotso Khumalo.

Never a contender

Smuts had asked about the recent spate of legal losses suffered by the communications minister at the hands of communications group Altech.

Those court hearings revolved around whether VANS should be allowed to self-provide and, therefore, were entitled to Individual-Electronic Communications Services (I-ECNS) licences that would give them the same rights and privileges as the incumbent operators, such as Telkom and Neotel.

ICASA was asked why it decided not to appeal the court rulings.

Mashile said ICASA was never in contention with the fact that VANS are allowed to self-provide and that is why it never appealed the rulings.

Earlier in his presentation, Mashile emphasised the point that increased competition was the only way to ensure the cost of communications comes down.

“We need to see competition not only in services, but in infrastructure as well,” he told the committee.

Just say no

Khumalo contended that ICASA had been “bulldozed” by the Department of Communications on a number of issues, such as the standards for the set-top-boxes (STBs - the units that will convert digital TV signals for display on analogue TV sets), and the non-awarding of licences for Digital Video Broadband-Handheld , the means of viewing TV signals on a mobile phone.

Mashile countered this by saying that ICASA had demonstrated its independence on several occasions, such as when Broadband Infraco, the Department of Public Enterprises sponsored broadband company, was expected to just be granted a licence.

“ICASA said 'no', it should be treated just like any other company,” he said.

Mashile said the SA Bureau of Standards drew up specifications for STBs and that ICASA would approve them. He also said that the authority was going to issue an invitation to apply for two DVB-H licences by the end of this month.

ICASA has released a digital terrestrial TV frequency plan for public comment, with a deadline of 16 January. Councilors say the final plan should be ready by February, with the intention that a full digital TV service be launched in June next year.

XHead = Schools unconnected

Problems persist with the implementation of the schools e-rate, the 50% discount that schools are entitled to. None currently receive it, some four years after having been decreed by the communications minister.

“The DOC has now said that 60% of public schools would not be able to pay even the 50% of the connectivity cost and now wants Cabinet to zero-rate it,” Mashile said. “However, this cost cannot be ignored... Maybe, this can be funded from the Universal Services and Access Fund,” he said.

Members of Parliament also pointed out that the issue of ICASA's funding was not resolved and that, while the authority had collected more than R2 billion for the fiscus through the collection of licensing fees, it was only receiving R212 million in funding.

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