Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: THE HERALD/EUGENE COETZEE
Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: THE HERALD/EUGENE COETZEE

The government has shelved a controversial proposed law aimed at regulating infrastructure sharing in the telecommunications sector.

One of the contentious proposals in the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill was the establishment of a wireless open-access network (WOAN), which the government has said was aimed at driving down communications costs by facilitating the entry of more players.

The government also said the bill was meant to improve competition, regulation and infrastructure-sharing in the sector amid a spectrum crunch.

Briefing the telecommunications and postal services committee on Tuesday, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said given that parliament is unlikely to finalise the bill during the remainder of the current term, it would be best to withdraw it to enable further consultations.

 “We need a holistic, forward-looking approach instead of ad hoc amendments to the existing legislation,” said Ndabeni-Abrahams.

During public hearings late in 2018, Business Unity SA (Busa), which represents organised business, urged MPs to review the proposed legislation. The organisation said that, should the bill be passed, licensees would no longer have an incentive to invest and innovate to differentiate their networks, as they would be subject to open access.

“Non-exclusive use risks harmful interference, limits effective optimisation of spectrum and creates uncertainty over the spectrum rights the licensee has,” Busa’s economic and trade policy director Olivier Serrao, said at the time.

“The WOAN will enjoy a disproportionate advantage over other licensees. The amount of spectrum available to existing operators will be limited and will likely exclude some operators. Licensees unable to obtain additional spectrum will be constrained to compete,” he said.

Mobile operator Vodacom also warned that any moves to regulate infrastructure-sharing in the telecoms sector will have a devastating effect on the wider economy, including employment and tax income. MTN slammed the bill, saying it is unconstitutional, will violate property rights, and discourage investment in the industry.

On Tuesday, the DA welcomed the withdrawal of the bill.

“We welcome [the communications minister’s] emphasis on the proposed minimal role that government will play as it realises that the private sector is best able to drive telecommunications advances to the benefit of the entire nation. [The minister] said the government will focus on regulatory and policy matters,” said DA MP Marian Shinn.

“The DA questioned the constitutionality of the bill, its tagging in the parliamentary process, and was concerned about the vast chasm caused by the department’s  attempts at ‘radically’ transforming the sector through emasculation of the Chapter Nine independence of the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa); the centralisation of regulation and power over the sector in the minister and department; the legal establishment of an ostensible private-sector consortium that would be handed high-demand spectrum; and the infringement on local governments’ operations in granting infrastructure build permissions,” said Shinn.

“The DA looks forward to a more dynamic, investor-friendly regulatory environment that promotes innovation and competition in both wholesale and retail ICT sectors to support the economic and social development needs of SA.”