DOC instability fuels frustration

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Frustration in the telecoms industry is fast rising, following the Department of Communication's (DOC) unexpected axing of director-general (DG) Mamodupi Mohlala.

Industry bodies have lashed out, saying the situation between communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda and his DG is of serious concern, but only adds to the DOC's long history of erratic regulation, unclear policy direction and distinct lack of clear leadership.

News of the DG's axing came late on Friday afternoon, stunning the telecoms industry.

When reports first surfaced of a strained relationship between the minister and Mohlala, the department quickly released a statement denying the accusations. At the time, the DOC noted that Mohlala was on sick leave and strongly denied any tension between the two.

However, Nyanda fired the DG with immediate effect, saying the trust between the two had broken down. But Mohlala will not go down without a fight - yesterday she announced that she would fight her dismissal in court.

Industry concerns

Secretary general of the Black IT Forum Motse Mfuleni has raised his concerns about the situation, saying that, while the body respects the minister's decision, the controversy surrounding the situation cannot be ignored.

He points to allegations that the axing of the DG is related to her voicing concerns that the minister was getting involved in the department's procurement process. Mfuleni says this creates a situation within the department where staff will not want to raise concerns about the minister's behaviour in fear of being fired.

More worrying, he notes, is the effect of this instability on industry. He argues that the minister's hasty decision to fire Mohlala is not sensitive to industry's efforts to meet regulatory and transformation objectives.

Mfuleni is concerned that issues relating to the dumping of the spectrum auction, the sensitive SABC Bill and concerns around interconnect regulations, will lie in limbo while the DOC tries to gain some stability.

Furthermore, industry will now have to develop a new relationship with acting DG Harold Wesso, which will take time to achieve. This process will have to be repeated again when a permanent DG is appointed.

Telecoms companies MWeb, Vox Telecom, ECN, and Altech declined to, or could not be reached for comment. However, Internet Solutions MD Derek Wilcocks believes the situation is not as bad as it seems.

“Any conflict within a governmental function is of concern to the industry governed. With respect to the current situation within the DOC, this is an internal matter within the DOC, and to date IS has not observed any negative impact on the legislative, regulatory or other functions of the DOC in the market.

“We hope that this situation will be resolved in the shortest possible time and that we will see the DOC restored to its full executive complement, so the DOC can continue to execute on the accelerated pace of regulatory progress and reform, which we have seen over the past few months,” says Wilcocks.

Point of indifference

The relationship breakdown between the minister and the DG is not the first sign of instability to come out of the DOC, leaving some indifferent about the latest controversy.

Ant Brooks, GM of the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA), argues this just adds to the view that the communications sector in SA has a long history of erratic regulation, unclear policy direction and a distinct lack of clear leadership from government.

“While there have certainly been some improvements in this regard over the last year or so, the current situation seems indicative that there are still some very serious problems which need to be urgently addressed,” he notes.

Brooks says concern over whether the DOC's instability will influence regulatory objectives must be viewed in the context of whether there has really been any recent regulatory objectives set by the DOC that would be negatively impacted.

“To pick just one example, last year the DOC announced it would undertake a comprehensive audit of frequency spectrum, and even issued a tender for consultants to do this work. The initial report on this was to have been released at the end of March 2010.

“To date, despite several letters from ISPA asking for feedback on the status of this audit, there has been a deafening silence from the DOC. Given that availability of spectrum is one of the most pressing concerns for the communications industry, this lack of progress (or even feedback on progress) is highly problematic,” he argues.

“Perhaps if the DOC had been more effective at meeting its own goals over the last year, there would be more reason for concern regarding the leadership problems. Unfortunately, given the DOC's relatively poor track record thus far, a cynical view is that it is hard to imagine the situation getting much worse,” he continues.

“Having expressed that cynical view, perhaps it is worth now optimistically suggesting that the current situation represents a good opportunity for government to get the DOC back on track, by ensuring that effective leadership is put in place, so that the DOC is able to fulfil some of the policy functions that it has been executing only rather poorly thus far,” concludes Brooks.

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