ICASA load-shedding council must avert talk-shop stigma

While it may be late to the game, the Independent Communications Authority of SA’s (ICASA’s) decision to determine the impact of load-shedding on the ICT sector is welcomed.

This is according to analysts, commenting on ICASA’s move to instate a council committee with a mandate to determine the impact of the current state of load-shedding on telecoms, broadcasting and postal services − the three areas the authority regulates.

Telcos have been vocal about the rolling power outages deflating their bottom line. In addition, statistics show bouts of load-shedding have a direct correlation with the spike in vandalism and battery or generator theft at network sites.

On the consumer side, thousands of paying customers have to contend with shoddy network connectivity and sometimes no connection at all during load-shedding.

The country’s power supply instability also reduces the quality of service and business continuity of the various sectors’ operations, including postal and broadcasting services.

Briefing Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications earlier this month, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) revealed the extent of the harm that rolling blackouts are causing its entities.

The DCDT, which exercises oversight on the SA Post Office (SAPO) and South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), noted load-shedding was hampering its digital migration programme, among many other issues.

In the case of SAPO, the department said when systems are down during load-shedding, staff are unable to capture registrations and issue set-top boxes (STBs) to installers. Installers are also unable to test STBs once they have been installed.

Awareness campaigns are also hindered, with the DCDT saying viewers are unable to gain the necessary information from SABC channels when the power is off.

Entering the debate

ICASA says the choice to establish the committee follows the April decision by government to terminate the National State of Disaster on electricity supply constraints.

Furthermore, it was motivated by the outcomes of a virtual consultation workshop it undertook, where stakeholders highlighted the limitations they face as service providers under the current electricity climate.

At the March workshop, among the relief measures stakeholders proposed was relooking the licence fees, relaxing or relooking the availability of quality of service.

According to ICASA, the newly-installed committee will work closely with the affected stakeholders in the industry and identify potential regulatory interventions that fall within its purview.

“The authority believes workable solutions can be identified through collaboration with relevant stakeholders to ameliorate the impact of load-shedding on the ICT sector, the economy and on the people of the country.”

ICASA acting chairperson Yolisa Kedama adds: “Through the establishment of this committee, the authority looks forward to working with government, the sector and industry stakeholders to find practical solutions to mitigate the impact of load-shedding on the ICT sector.”

Mark Walker, associate VP for Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey, commends ICASA, saying this shows this is not just a telco or industry issue, but a wider problem that needs urgent attention on all fronts – regulatory, social and commercial – to be addressed.

“Sadly, ICASA is late to the game but we are hopeful that they move quickly to understand the impact and remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles to fixing the issue. Unfortunately, ICASA can only do so much and we hope this initiative is not lost in a long-winded committee approach with poorly-defined objectives and weak outcomes.

“ICASA is responsible and mandated to regulate the telecoms, broadcasting and postal industries to ensure affordable services of a high quality for all South Africans. We trust that via the licensing and compliance authority vested in the institution, this power will be leveraged to exert pressure on government and various state-owned enterprises to protect consumers from unfair business practices and poor-quality services currently underpinning the electricity supply crisis.”

Thecla Mbongue, research manager for Middle East and Africa at research firm Omdia, says there doesn’t seem to be a solution to the energy crisis coming soon. Therefore, it is essential for government to collaborate with all key stakeholders to at least work on the best alternative solutions.

Mbongue believes that having such a committee in place will serve the industry well. “It is crucial to make telcos feel that government is ready to listen to their grievances.

“Also, ICASA has been increasingly demanding in terms of network performance and quality of services. It is therefore just fair that they take into account the main constraint caused by the energy crisis and consult telcos about it.”

Key deliverables

ICASA notes that once it has finalised its internal consideration of the scope of its regulatory process in response to the electricity crisis, a notice will be published on its website.

Walker says the success of the committee will be measured in terms of its ability to effect positive change quickly.

Should this become a talk-shop with no clear objectives and actionable outcomes that are implemented effectively, then the committee will have failed, he adds.

“By providing a forum for unified action across industry, labour and government, this committee should be a useful vehicle to drive quick change across the sector.”

He advises that the committee must identify what is required to resolve the load-shedding crisis from a telecoms, broadcasting and postal services perspective:

  • Identify what regulations impede these requirements – not only from the teleco/broadcasting perspective, but also regarding labour and government.
  • Privatisation, state ownership, pricing, financing and labour issues should enjoy strong focus.
  • Draft policy and regulation to fast-track removal of impedimentary regulation and include any regulation to enable faster resolution of the crisis.

“Focus on identifying quickly and moving to action; do not get stuck in analysis paralysis,” Walker concludes.

See also