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Communications minister has her facts twisted

By   |  February 21, 2007

In this morning’s Business Day there is an article that quotes the minister of communications, Ivy Matsepe Casaburri, saying that there is a need to “‘twist the arm of the private sector to participate in unbundling the local loop now owned by Telkom” to bring down telecommunications costs in South Africa. The local loop is the final portion of the telecoms network that connects customers to the networks.

“One of the things I have learnt about the private sector is that sometimes we do things in the hope that private sector will come to the party. But we have learnt that the private sector does not always come to the party if it is not convenient for them,” says the minister.

She goes on to lay the blame for other telecommunications failings, including the relatively low uptake of VoIP and the utter failure to address the unserviced areas, at the door of the “private sector”.

Clearly the minister is as out of touch with the reality of South African telecommunications as we have always suspected.

The notion that the private sector is unwilling to participate is remarkable. Particularly because much of what the minister says the private sector ought to have addressed has been illegal until recently.

Take VoIP, for example, which was illegal until February 2005. Or the fact that service providers are prevented from self-provisioning or building their own infrastructure. Recent changes in the ECT act may suggest that self-provisioning is becoming legal but for most service providers the risk of having to prove this in court is too high and until there is clarity they will avoid the issue.

Is the minister suggesting that the private sector should have acted illegally in “coming to the party” and providing these services? It is a ludicrous idea, but the only realistic reading of the minister’s statements.

And what of the second national operator? More than three years overdue in being licensed, is it any wonder that the local loop is still bound up in the monopoly provider, Telkom? How exactly does the minister expect the local loop to be unbundled if no-one is allowed – legally – to provide those services? And the list goes on, including archaic regulations that banned network transmissions from crossing roads and boundary lines – wireless or otherwise.

Perhaps even more frustratingly the minister lays blame for the lack of services in underserviced areas at the door of the private sector. Perhaps the minister should look a little closer to home on this issue. Say, for example, at the 38% stake her department holds – on behalf of government – in Telkom. It is well documented that Telkom had not only failed to service its licence conditions by not meeting underserviced area rollout targets, but that it has stated its intention to pay the R15 million fine rather than meet the targets, leaving in excess of 60 000 lines uninstalled in the underserviced areas.

The minister is right, the private sector is not participating in the underserviced areas adequately. But as a significant shareholder, perhaps she ought to spend more time ensuring Telkom is coming to the party rather than blaming an unnammed private sector bogey man.

The private sector is not coming to the party because it has not been invited, and in most cases it has been banned. It is time that the minister realises the only arms that need to be twisted are those of the Department of Communications and Icasa. The private sector has been begging for an invite for years now.

Alastair Otter is the editor of Tectonic and a co-founder of the Telecommunications Action Group (TAG)


2 Responses to “Communications minister has her facts twisted”

  1. Richard
    February 21st, 2007 @ 12:00 am

    Ivy also said: “You cannot just make inordinate amounts of profit and not care what happens to your country,\” which is probably the most ironic thing I\’ve heard in my life, considering her record.

    The private sector has been crying out for reform for years. I would like to hear what the ISPA and other private sector associations have to say about Ivy\’s statements.

  2. Phil
    February 22nd, 2007 @ 12:00 am

    I would like to suggestion a vote for the resignation of the Minister and send her the results. She has no clue about the department she is supposed to be running and people like her are stalling development in this sector.

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