DOC split 'set the sector back 10 years'

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RIA says the ECA Bill should be withdrawn pending a re-amalgamation of the DOC and DTPS.
RIA says the ECA Bill should be withdrawn pending a re-amalgamation of the DOC and DTPS.

Research ICT Africa (RIA) believes the separation of the Department of Communications (DOC) into two separate departments in 2014 "has set the sector back 10 years".

This is according to a written submission by RIA, commenting on the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill (ECA Bill), approved by Cabinet last November.

"RIA believes that having two ministers and two departments flies in the face of convergence and of the evolution of a complex, highly integrated, globalised ICT ecosystem," the group says in the submission.

The old DOC was separated into the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) and the new DOC by president Jacob Zuma in May 2014. At the time, the new DOC was handed over to Faith Muthambi, while Siyabonga Cwele took over as DTPS minister, a role he still occupies. They both replaced then communications minister Yunus Carrim.

RIA, a think tank conducting research on ICT policy across Africa, says the ECA Bill assumes the continued separate existence of the two departments, something it suggests should change.

"RIA believes there was no rationale for the creation of the two departments with their responsible ministers, that it was contrary to the convergence policy that had been developed over the previous decade, and it was occasioned by short-term political exigencies. That decision has set the sector back 10 years."

RIA is calling for the DTPS to withdraw the ECA Bill for substantial revision pending a re-amalgamation with the DOC.

It points out that the department split issue was recognised in one of the minority recommendations from a 2015 ICT Policy Review Panel, which said "government needs to recognise that the phenomenon of convergence and the nature of the sector as a complex, interlocking ecosystem creates enormous difficulties for DTPS and DOC in developing coherent, consistent policy and ensuring effective governance".

In addition, the RIA notes the governing ANC in a recent communications policy document calls for government to "reconfigure... and integrate the ministries of communications and telecommunications and postal services into one ICT ministry".

ICT veteran and IITPSA programme consultant Adrian Schofield agrees with RIA, saying he cannot think of any good consequences that came from the split.

"On the downside, we have the waste of taxpayers' money on two ministries and departments, the interminable delay in finalising digital migration, the tabling of poor legislation (such as the amendments to the ECA and the Films and Publications Act), the degrading of the SABC and the failure to meet targets in respect of access and affordability. Of course, it can be argued that these issues would not have been resolved under a single ministry but we will never know," Schofield adds.

Converged ICT

RIA says the continued separation of the two departments "despite the context of convergence and IP-based services is concerning".

"In particular, the separation of responsibilities in spectrum policy between DOC and DTPS goes against market developments, whereby the digital dividend emerging from the digital migration (DOC's jurisdiction) should be allocated to the deployment of innovative telecommunications services (DTPS's jurisdiction)," it says.

Schofield agrees that in terms of spectrum, the separation of the departments "makes no sense".

"Spectrum should clearly fall under the independent regulator and not be the political football it has become. The pace of innovation in the way that spectrum is used requires a fully professional and technically expert independent regulator, working with the international standards and the relevant manufacturers to ensure that South Africa takes advantage of the capacity of these technologies to grow its economy," he says.

RIA points out the prevailing trend in regulatory oversight in other jurisdictions has been for the establishment of converged regulators, along the lines of the Office of Communications (OfCom) in the UK. Other examples include converged regulators in Malawi, Tanzania, Botswana and Swaziland.

"Separate regulatory institutions for content and carriage, such as the French system, are noted by exception rather than common practice," it says.

"However, the proposed slew of legislation appears intent on further fragmenting the regulation of ICT infrastructure, services and content by setting up with two new entities (an ICT Sector Commission and ICT Sector Tribunal Bill), leaving the rump of ICASA to deal with content and broadcasting issues, while increasing the regulatory powers of the minister."

One of the other major reasons that the group is calling for the ECA Bill to be withdrawn is that it says it undermines the independence of the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) and increases the power of the minister of the DTPS which "may render the Bill unconstitutional".

Dissolve USAASA

However, RIA welcomes the proposed dissolution of the embattled Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (USAASA), which it says appears to be contemplated in the proposed Digital Development Fund Bill (not yet tabled for public comment).

The National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper, approved by Cabinet in September 2016, suggested USAASA be dismantled and its functions transferred to the DTPS.

"RIA notes there is considerable evidence over the years of maladministration and corruption at USAASA, not to mention the repeated failure to deliver on its mandate.

"RIA therefore agrees with the understated assessment of the ICT Policy Review Panel that USAASA has been 'ineffective in achieving its mandate' and with their consequent recommendation that it be 'dissolved and existing functions transferred to ICASA (regulatory functions) or to the DTPS (policymaking functions)'."

"The administrative and governance costs of a dedicated agency have placed a considerable and unnecessary financial burden on the sector that can be reduced with incorporation," RIA concludes.

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