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ICASA eyes bigger budget to meet ‘expanding’ regulatory mandate

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Acting ICASA chairman Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng.
Acting ICASA chairman Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng.

Inadequate funding and reduced allocations over the medium-term expenditure framework could hamper the delivery of the Independent Communications Authority of SA’s (ICASA’s) mandate.

This is one of the key risks noted by ICASA acting chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, during a presentation of the authority’s Strategic Plan: 2020-2025. Modimoeng, CEO Willington Ngwepe and other officials briefed the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications at the weekend, on ICASA’s budget and annual performance plan for 2020/21.

ICASA, whose mandate is to regulate the South African communications, broadcasting and postal services sectors, received a total budget of R493 million for the 2020/21 financial year.

Responding to a question as to whether the budget is sufficient, Modimoeng said the telecoms regulator could do with more. “You know with money we always wish and pray for more. We could really do with more because our mandate keeps on expanding.”

He explained: “When you look four or five years ago, our budget effectively, in real terms, keeps on shrinking. That’s why we are now talking about alternative funding models and so forth; whereby we say, ICASA collects a lot of revenue licence fees – can we then have some more engagements with Treasury and all relevant stakeholders so that ICASA can keep a portion of those fees, to enable our regulatory mandate.

“But we will work with what we have; it results in freezing of certain vacancies, and so forth. It’s very constraining but we really hope for more in future.”

The ICASA report adds: “The authority intensified implementation of austerity measures with effect from 2018/19, which enabled divisions to reprioritise funds towards achieving key projects impacting on the mandate.

“In order to ensure delivery of projects of national importance; for example, licensing of high-demand spectrum, the authority continues to engage with National Treasury and the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies for additional funding required.”

The committee encouraged ICASA to find cost-effective ways to deliver on its programmes.

Merger on the horizon

Among the identified risks, the acting chairperson noted the proposed rationalisation of regulators, wherein ICASA may cease to exist in its current form.

In December 2019, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams unveiled changes for the department’s entities, announcing her department’s plans to merge ICASA, the Film and Publication Board (FPB) and .ZADNA, to establish a single regulator.

While ICASA regulates SA’s telecoms and broadcast industry, the FPB regulates the creation and distribution of content on public platforms, including social media, and .ZADNA administrates the .za Internet namespace.

The reason behind the merger, Ndabeni-Abrahams said at the time, is to eliminate repetition among the three entities.

Modimoeng explained they are not necessarily allergic to the merger per se, but the way the communication thereof is handled and managed needs to be in a more refined way.

“If we just go back a little bit in history and look at the formation of ICASA – ICASA was necessitated by the convergence of technologies that was happening naturally in the sector. At the time, we used to have SATRA [South African Telecommunications Regulatory Authority] and IBA separately, and the postal regulator, which gave birth to ICASA as we know it.

“Now with ICASA being formed, it gave birth to the Electronic Communications Act, which really deals with the question of convergence. In 2020, as the debate is ongoing around whether we are merging with others or delinking, we are saying at an organisational level this needs to be handled properly so that it does not result in uncertainty.

“It is not very much the merits of the merger or de-merger that we are questioning, but it is the accompanying narrative around this merger. Let’s just be careful that it does not result in low staff morale or staff uncertainty at ICASA. When some of the staff members resign, when you probe you realise it's this uncertainty. If we are to merge with other organisations, is the merger the first prize, or should we consider memorandums of incorporation or memorandums of understanding on how can we best work together.”

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