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SNO shenanigans resume next week

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The process of selecting the final partner for the second national telephone operator (SNO) is expected to continue next week with an invitation for foreign partners to come to the negotiation table.

The government has vowed to identify a foreign partner for the SNO by the end of May and seems on track to deliver if it can settle a potential dispute with the regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA).

ICASA said this week its lawyers believed communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri had gone beyond the powers of her office in sidestepping it in what is hoped to be the final selection process. Negotiations with potential partners are to be handled by the Department of Communications after ICASA rejected the bids by the Goldleaf Trading and Optis Telecommunications consortiums.

While ICASA believes the minister has gone too far and possibly usurped rights assigned to it, both parties say they want to settle the matter amicably.

Lawyers from the department and ICASA met this week in an attempt to settle their differences. By the time of publication it was not known whether agreement had been reached, but sources close to the process were confident there would be no delay caused by a dispute.

This would leave the way clear for the government to issue an invitation next week for interested parties to pre-qualify for closed-door talks with the department. Companies are expected to have a 30-day window in which to apply to be considered and the government hopes to conclude negotiations within two months after that.

The invitation is to lay out the exact terms on offer and will clarify whether the foreign partner will still be expected to make up 51% of the SNO, as originally envisaged.

Speaking at a media briefing yesterday, Matsepe-Casaburri said the original selection process, aimed at finding a partner to take up 51% of the SNO, had been hampered by global economic factors.

"However, with a current gradual recovery of the telecoms market we hope to get a positive response," she said.

Although only the largely British Goldleaf group has publicly said it would continue its bid for involvement in the new operator, the government says several groups from all over the world have already indicated interest. These are thought to include Shanghai Telecom, previously part of the Optis consortium, Germany telecoms consultancy Detecon, which was involved in the launch of Cell C, and at least one other European company.

Negotiations between these groups and a panel led by Department of Communications deputy director-general Pakamile Pongwana are to be confidential and "without prejudice".

In contrast, the ICASA process in which Goldleaf and Optis failed was transparent, under rules laid down by the department. ICASA refused requests to keep financial information secret and the bidders were expected to offer guarantees that they would stick to the plans laid out in their bid documents.

Related stories:
Govt takes second stab at SNO
Goldleaf drops court bid

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