Big businesses say ICASA ‘running amok’ with spectrum

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Busi Mavuso, CEO of Business Leadership SA.
Busi Mavuso, CEO of Business Leadership SA.

Business Leadership SA (BLSA) has come out swinging at the telecoms regulator over its plans to withdraw temporary spectrum next month, accusing the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) of “running amok” and jeopardising the welfare of millions of South Africans.

Busi Mavuso, BLSA CEO, took exception to ICASA’s decision to withdraw the emergency spectrum, issued under the national disaster regulations.

Mavuso says the move will have a severe impact on the five million vulnerable South Africans who are currently benefiting from free internet-based services as a result of the temporary spectrum.

When the COVID-19 national disaster regulations were proclaimed, part of the agreement with operators was that certain internet-based services will be zero-rated, to allow the vulnerable to learn virtually, as well as receive information on COVID-19.

The BLSA is now calling on government to intervene and halt ICASA’s plans to terminate the deal with operators, as the vulnerable will be the most affected due to the high costs of data.

In an interview with broadcaster Newzroom Afrika yesterday, Mavuso explained the ripple-effect of ICASA’s decision.

SA’s cul-de-sac

“The impact to consider from where we are sitting is that there is going to be a serious effect on the vulnerable. The remote learning that is said to reach about 1.2 million learners is not going to be achieved. The free SMSes that you and I are getting in communicating to and from the Department of Health after registering for the vaccination programmes to remind us about getting jabs, all of that will have to be taken away,” said Mavuso.

“Five million people who are currently benefitting from these free services are actually not going to benefit anymore. Also, if you look at adjusted level two conditions, it says people should continue working from home. That will no longer be possible if ICASA withdraws the temporary spectrum, which means all of us are going to be forced to go back to the offices and with slow vaccine intake, this means increased health risks.”

Further, she said the temporary spectrum played a significant role in assisting millions who could not have afforded data during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“As a result of the temporary spectrum, thousands of school learners and tertiary students were able to continue with their education; clinics and other healthcare sites could remain connected; and other people also managed to work from home as result of this decision. Basically, it would not have been possible to remain connected and many more jobs would have been lost.”

Over and above the social good the spectrum has delivered, Mavuso said, businesses also benefitted, thereby protecting and creating employment.

“If you look at what happened in the call centre industry, you will see that over the last year-and-a-half, this is one industry that actually managed to grow. This one industry has actually continued to create jobs; it made a significant boost to the GDP of the country,” said Mavuso.

“It was, therefore, a shock when ICASA two weeks ago announced it will be terminating these licences on 30 November, which is two months from now. This actually means that when this temporary spectrum will actually be withdrawn, the country will face what is tantamount to digital load-shedding.”

Bad dream

Considering the potential impact on business, Mavuso called upon president Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene with urgency.

“It doesn’t make sense when we are actually sitting with an unemployment rate of 44.4%, in terms of the standard definition; this means more people are probably going to be losing jobs.

“We are, therefore, raising this issue so that it gets the president’s attention, because it doesn’t make sense that we keep talking about how we need to position this country as an investment destination. The president was talking in Limpopo about two weeks ago at an investment conference, talking about SA being open for business; well, that is not true.

“Not when ICASA is going to make decisions like this. Not when we continue to talk left and walk right as a country. Not when we set a clear path on what needs to be done to change our economic trajectory, but we continue to make decisions that are going to undermine that path and trajectory.”

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